Monday, December 29, 2008

Target #43: Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller)

TSPDT placing: #737
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Dwight Taylor (story), Samuel Fuller (screenplay)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Milburn Stone

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

Shock Corridor (1963) was my first film from Samuel Fuller, and there I was impressed with the director's astute blending of B-movie and big-budget aesthetics, even if the story itself was pure schlock. Pickup on South Street (1953) was released a decade earlier in Fuller's career, obviously produced on a larger budget from a big-name studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. Nevertheless, the visuals are still notable in that there's a somewhat raw, naturalistic element to the photography, not unlike Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) {the latter was also shot by cinematographer Joe McDonald}. In some scenes, Fuller shoves the camera so close to his actors' faces that they're out of focus, bluntly registering the intimate thoughts, emotions and brief inflections that are communicated through that most revealing of facial features, the eye. Though (unexpectedly) prone to melodrama, and with just a hint of anti-Communist propaganda, Pickup on South Street is a strong film noir that succeeds most outstandingly in its evocation of setting – the underground of New York City.When just-out-of-prison pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snags the purse of a woman on the subway (Jean Peters), he pockets more than he'd originally bargained for. The woman, Candy, and her cowardly ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) had been smuggling top-secret information to the Communists, and McKoy has unexpectedly retrieved an important roll of micro-film. Will he turn in the MacGuffin to the proper authorities, or sell it to the highest bidder? If Pickup on South Street has a flaw, it's that the story seems designed solely to bolster an anti-Communist agenda, reeking of propaganda like nothing since WWII {Dwight Taylor, who supplied the story, also notably wrote The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), the only propagandistic movie of the series}. For no apparent reason, every identifiable character – even the smugly self-serving Skip McCoy – eventually becomes a self-sacrificing patriot, the transformation predictable from the outset. In traditional film noir, the unapologetic criminal always gets his comeuppance, the rational punishment for his sins, but apparently not when they've served their country; patriotism wipes the slate clean.

Richard Widmark, an actor who I'm really beginning to like, plays the haughty pickpocket with composure, though always with that hint of ill-ease that suggests he's biting off more than he can chew. The opening scene on the train is the film's finest, as McCoy breathlessly fishes around in his victim's hand bag, recalling Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). Thelma Ritter is terrific as a tired street-woman who'll peddle information to anybody willing to pay for it (though, of course, she draws the line at Commies). Jean Peters is well-cast as the trashy dame passing information to the other side, playing the role almost completely devoid of glamour; Fuller reportedly cast the actress on the observation that she had the slightly bow-legged strut of a prostitute. Nevertheless, Peters must suffer a contrived love affair with Widmark that really brings down the film's attempts at realism. Fascinatingly, upon its release, Pickup on South Street was promptly condemned as Communist propaganda by the FBI, and the Communist Party condemned it for being the exact opposite. Go figure.

Currently my #5 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) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller) *
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Target #42: The Woman on the Beach (1947, Jean Renoir)

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Mitchell Wilson (novel), J.R. Michael Hogan (adaptation), Frank Davis, Jean Renoir (screenplay)
Starring: Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford, Nan Leslie, Walter Sande, Irene Ryan, Glen Vernon

By 1947, Jean Renoir, at least indirectly, wasn't new to the American film noir style. Two years earlier, Fritz Lang had released the first of his two Renoir remakes, Scarlet Street (1945), which was based upon La Chienne / The Bitch (1931) {the second film, Human Desire (1954), was inspired by La Bête humaine / The Human Beast (1938)}. Scarlet Street notably starred Joan Bennett in a prominent role, which makes it interesting that, despite allegedly disliking that film, Renoir himself used her in his own Hollywood film noir, The Woman on the Beach (1947). It's a visually-magnificent film, with photography from Leo Tover and Harry Wild (the latter of whom shot Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Macao (1952)) that perfectly captures the mystery and eerie calm of the beach-side setting, frequently swathed in gentle clouds of mist that foreshadow the ambiguity and uncertainty of the story that follows. When we first glimpse Joan Bennett on the fog-swathed coast, collecting driftwood at the wreck of a grounded ship, she really does look ghostly and ethereal, a premonition that may or may not be real.

Robert Ryan plays Scott, a coastguard who suffers from regular night terrors concerning memories of a war-time naval tragedy, when his ship was presumably torpedoed. His dream sequences are gripping and otherwordly, recalling the excellently surreal work achieved by Renoir in his silent short film, The Little Match Girl (1928). During his nightmares, Scott imagines an underwater romantic liaison, which, before he can get intimate, unexpectedly blows up in his face; this is an apt indication of the events that unfold later in the film. Scott is engaged to marry the pretty Eve (Nan Leslie), but his attention is soon distracted by Peggy (Joan Bennett), the titular "woman on the beach." Peggy is married to Tod (Charles Bickford), a famous blind artist who is still coming to terms with his relatively recent affliction. At just 71 minutes in length, Woman on the Beach feels far too short, the apparent victim of studio interference. Scott is obviously enamoured, and later obsessed, with femme fatale Peggy, in a manner than suggests Walter Neff's fixation with Phyllis Dietrichson, but the motivations behind his actions are inadequately explored and explained.

Perhaps as a result of the studio's trimming of scenes, many plot-twists in the film seem somewhat contrived. Scott's extreme determination in proving that Tod is faking blindness feels so incredibly illogical – why, indeed, would Tod even consider such a con? Many wonderful scenes are severely hampered by the story's lack of exposition. In the film's most dramatic scene, amid the choppy waters of the Atlantic, Robert Ryan displays a frighteningly convincing rage that borders on pure psychosis, a quality that Nicholas Ray exploited five years later in On Dangerous Ground (1952). However, because Scott's obsession and emotional transformation had previously been explored so sparsely, the sequence feels, above all else, out of context. The performances are neverthless solid across the board, with Bickford probably the most impressive. Bennett's character is tantalisingly ambiguous: throughout the film, she slowly reveals herself to be nothing but a greedy tramp, though Scott insists on treating her as a tormented victim of abuse. The ending offers little in the way of resolution, reaffirming the sentiment that perhaps this film isn't all there.

Currently my #9 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 Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir) *
10) Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery) *


Friday, December 26, 2008

Bonus Noir: Lured (1947, Douglas Sirk)

Directed by: Douglas Sirk

Written by: Jacques Companéez (story), Simon Gantillon (story), Ernest Neuville (story), Leo Rosten (writer)

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

Director Douglas Sirk is generally known for producing weepy melodramas, so Lured (1947) seemed like an exciting exception to the rule. The title alone has the feel of a dark and claustrophobic film noir thriller, with stark silhouettes skulking in alleyways and the shadow of gnarled fingers reaching toward a heroine's throat. The Production Code Administration apparently took a dislike to the film's name, perhaps conjuring up similar mental images to my own, and the film's title was subsequently changed to the less-lurid Personal Column, which sounds more like a Lubitsch romantic comedy. Neither title quite does justice to the film's tone, which is somewhere between thriller and melodrama, stranded hopelessly in middle-ground between the two distinct genres. An impressive cast – including Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, Joseph Calleia and Charles Coburn – does its best with the uneven material. The tone of the screenplay shifts markedly between the moody and sophisticated first half and the less-interesting second, when each character abandons all the traits that had made them appealing.

Sandra Carpenter (Ball) is a smart-mouthed taxi dancer, the sort of girl who doesn't take any nonsense from the opposite sex. When her colleague goes missing after answering an ad in the newspaper personals column, the police suspect that she is the latest victim of a deranged serial killer, who sends the authorities flowery poetry readings to boast of his crimes. To prevent the next murder, Sandra is unexpectedly recruited to identify the man responsible, going undercover as his next prospective victim. Among the suspects is Boris Karloff, unfortunately underused as a hilariously demented fashion designer, and George Sanders, playing one of those charmingly smug suitors that he always played so well. Veteran cinematographer William Daniel's creates a nice, moody black-and-white atmosphere, perhaps lacking the grittiness of your typical 1940s film noir, though that would hardly have worked alongside a screenplay where even the most depraved murderers speak with a high degree of elegance and sophistication. Apparently, that's just how everybody is in England.

The first half of the film delicately develops a mysterious and slightly Gothic air of uneasiness, and then something happens: Douglas Sirks' melodramatic instincts kick in, and his characters suddenly become less interesting than before. Lucille Ball's sassy and independent woman becomes enamoured with George Sanders, discarding all her saucy wise-cracks in favour of the anguished cries of a weepy and vulnerable damsel-in-distress. Sanders, likewise, is effectively neutered by the onset of love, losing his indomitable lust and becoming all quiet and contemplative. George Sanders quiet and contemplative, you say? Outrageous! Even so, Cedric Hardwicke singlehandedly rescues the film's final half, refusing to subdue his grotesque depravity even before we're supposed to guess that he's the man responsible for the serial murders. I don't know if I could confidently recommend Lured to fans of Douglas Sirk, but the excellent cast of actors means that most viewers should find some degree of fulfillment in his unusual brand of film noir film-making. This is worth a look.

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 Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery) *
10) Lured (Douglas Sirk) *


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Target #41: Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, Otto Preminger)

Directed by: Otto Preminger

Written by: William L. Stuart (novel), Ben Hecht (screenplay), Victor Trivas (adaptation), Frank P. Rosenberg (adaptation), Robert E. Kent (adaptation)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) opens, appropriately, with Dana Andrews' and Gene Tierneys' names inscribed on the sidewalk, as dirty water streams down between the bars of a sewer grate. The sidewalk represents respectability, integrity and morality – only crooks and delinquents walk in the gutter. But even the most honourable of men have a tendency to misstep on occasion, and, when the sidewalk abruptly comes to an end, sometimes it proves impossible to avoid getting one's shoes wet. Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) was born in the gutter, his father a professional criminal, and has spent his entire life clawing his way back onto the sidewalk, perpetually balanced on the edge of the kerb. As a police detective, Dixon wants nothing more than to display the decency and integrity that his father lacked, but he possesses a mean-streak that he can't escape. When his quick temper leaves a murder suspect dead, Dixon finds himself becoming the very father whom he despised, a cheap criminal who'll cheat and lie to cover up his offence.

Where the Sidewalk Ends was the only film to reunite Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and director Otto Preminger after the superb Laura (1944), though the two films, as far as noir goes, couldn't be further apart. Whereas the earlier picture had the strong intimacy of a country-house murder tale, this film is more conventional as a gritty urban police drama. Given her ravishingly memorable performance as Laura Hunt, it's unfortunate that here Tierney is grossly underused, occupying the typical niche of the pretty, helpless romantic interest {much as she did that same year in Jules Dassin's The Night and the City (1950)}. Andrews, on the other hand, has rarely been better, exhibiting a toughness and unhinged anger that I hadn't expected of him. Gary Merrill is suitably smug as the crime boss Scalise, but he doesn't seem mean enough for the role, and I think that an actor like Richard Conte (who played Mr. Brown in The Big Combo (1955)) would have better suited the character; I hadn't realised this, but Conte appeared just one year earlier in Preminger's Whirlpool (1949).

The tension, as Dixon attempts to cover up his crime, is absolutely riveting – certainly among the most suspenseful sequences of its era – though I feel that the situation still wasn't exploited to its full potential. The taxi driver is the only person who could have decisively identified Dixon as the perpetrator, but Preminger hurriedly skims over the moment when he passes Dixon on the stairs. Had the witness been brought in as Dixon was re-enacting his own movements outside the apartment entrance, we could have had some genuine fireworks. And why, for that matter, couldn't the taxi driver's testimony have immediately absolved Jiggs Taylor (Tom Tully) from suspicion of murder? Niggling inconsistencies such as these tarnish an otherwise excellent screenplay from Ben Hecht, who infuses his gritty criminal underworld with hard-hitting cops and wise-cracking felons. Andrews' seething and implosive law-enforcer, tormented by rage and remorse, has rarely been done better, at least the equal of Robert Ryan in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952).

Currently my #5 film of 1950:
1) Night and the City (Jules Dassin) *
2) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder) *
3) Harvey (Henry Koster)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) *
5) Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger) *
6) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
7) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
8) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) *
9) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan) *
10) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)


Target #40: Panic in the Streets (1950, Elia Kazan)

Directed by: Elia Kazan

Written by: Edna Anhalt (story), Edward Anhalt (story), Daniel Fuchs (adaptation), Richard Murphy (screenplay)

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

Panic in the Streets (1950) owes more to British noir that its American counterparts. Like Reed's The Third Man (1949) and Dassin's Night and the City (1950), director Elia Kazan chose to film largely on location, capturing the fresh and vibrant decadence of the New Orleans slums. In a decision borrowed from the masters of Italian neorealism, he also hired many non-professional actors for minor roles, lending an air of authenticity to the cityscape. However, any further comparisons with neorealism would be misguided, for Panic in the Streets is pure melodrama, of the best kind. A murdered illegal immigrant, fished out of the bay, is found to be infected with pneumonic plague, a deadly air-borne mutation of bubonic plague, which is transmitted from human-to-human and, untreated, has a mortality rate that approaches 100%. Clinton Reed (Richard Widmark), an officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, convinces the doubtful police-chief (Paul Douglas) to undertake a city-wide manhunt for the men responsible for the homicide, lest they also be infected with the illness.

In my younger years, I found Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995) to be among the most horrifying movies I'd ever seen. That thriller, which owes plenty to Panic in the Streets {working title: "Outbreak"}, terrified me so efficiently because it depicted the ebola virus as both an invisible and invincible killer – how does one defend themselves against such a thing? Kazan's film is the first (that I know of) to approach the subject of biological epidemics, though it has difficulty ascribing visual recognition to an enemy that is basically undetectable to the human eye; it instead uses Jack Palance as a human personification of the Plague. Despite his venturing out among the filthy dregs of human society, you never get the sense that Clinton Reed is placing his own life at risk {some viewers have noted that Reed never inoculated himself against the plague, though I think it's safe to assume that he did so at the same time as the morgue staff}. Nevertheless, there's still a strong sense of urgency in the hunt for the infected man's killers, underground street-rats who pollute the sewers with their misdeeds.
In medieval times, when the Black Death (now widely believed to have been bubonic plague) swept across the civilised world, killing a third of Europe's population, many identified the destruction as being the work of the Devil. Jack Palance's character, Blackie, serves effectively as Satan in human form: the angular-jawed thug can occasionally be charming and charismatic, but is always liable to explode into fits of violence; his two hoodlums (played by Guy Thomajan and Zero Mostel), through terror more than anything else, are constantly grovelling at his feet. When one lackey falls ill with fever, Blackie deduces that the man's immigrant cousin must have "brought something in with him" (the irony of his conclusion not passing unnoticed), and so attempts to ascertain what this presumably valuable object must be. He cradles the dying Poldi in his arms, a grotesque display of faux affection that is both pathetic and unsettling. Blackie/Satan is finally stopped – not by the authorities, but by the burden of his own infection/evil – as he attempts to board a cargo ship, the primary vessel by which the Plague spread across Europe.

Currently my #8 film of 1950:
1) Night and the City (Jules Dassin) *
2) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder) *
3) Harvey (Henry Koster)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) *
5) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
6) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
7) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) *
8) Panic in the Streets (Elia Kazan) *
9) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
10) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Target #39: Lady in the Lake (1947, Robert Montgomery)

Directed by: Robert Montgomery

Written by: Raymond Chandler (novel), Steve Fisher (screenplay)

I'll get the obvious out of the way first. Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947) is most renowned for being one of the only mainstream films to unfold almost entirely from the first-person perspective of the main character, in this case Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The technique had been used before, albeit on a lesser scale, in the opening five minutes of Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). In 1947, shortly after the release of Montgomery's film, Delmer Daves would take an enormous risk by filming the first hour of Dark Passage (1947) without showing the face of Humphrey Bogart, though the star's status was such that he was eventually forced to emerge from the shadows (after which point, it must be said, the film becomes more conventional and marginally less interesting). Montgomery, in his last film at MGM, was also given the opportunity to direct, and he doesn't flinch from his chosen gimmick. Marlowe's face is seen only during several brief explanatory interludes, and whenever he happens to catch his reflection in the mirror.

Setting aside the gimmick – which MGM optimistically hailed as the greatest cinematic innovation since synchronised sound – Lady in the Lake doesn't quite measure up to other popular Chandler adaptations of the time. Robert Montgomery may have been a great actor – I honestly can't say, this being my first film with him – but his Philip Marlowe doesn't possess the toughness of Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), nor the cocky swagger of Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944). The awkwardness of the role is only accentuated by Marlowe's constantly being behind the camera, though even the occasional direct-to-camera interruptions seem to miss the mark. I don't expect that the supporting actors had much experience in speaking directly to a piece of equipment, and so their performances are capable without being particularly memorable. The chemistry between Montgomery and Audrey Totter, the potentially-villainous femme fatale, was mostly stale for this reason, as we're really only seeing one side of their conversation.

Perhaps the film's greatest weakness – and, once again, this all comes back to Montgomery's chosen gimmick – is that everything moves so slowly. One would expect those 1940s movie cameras to have been incredibly clunky, and so, in these pre-Steadicam days, Marlowe ambles from A to B with devastating sluggishness. The first-person technique, however, did work wonderfully in the sequence where Marlowe is being pursued in his car, and also when he must drag himself across the gravel to a public telephone. There are lots of prolonged silences where nothing happens, and, despite striving for realism, the film should have conceded more of a musical soundtrack to fill these voids. The one piece of music put into use, however, was an eerily effective choir song that reminded me of György Ligeti's "Requiem" from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Overall, Lady in the Lake is a fascinating film noir experiment that doesn't quite manage to pull it off. Even so, it's worth a look for its unique take on Philip Marlowe and several scenes of inarguable excellence.

Currently my #9 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 Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery) *
10) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Target #38: Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin)

Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Gerald Kersh (novel), Jo Eisinger (screenplay), Austin Dempster (uncredited), William E. Watts (uncredited)
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Herbert Lom, Hugh Marlowe, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki, Charles Farrell, Ken Richmond

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

“You did it, and now you can get rich. You’ve got Kristo stopped, you’ve got the Strangler, and Gregorius is on your side. It’s a wonderful situation, because you’ve got it all. But you can’t put the fight on because you don’t have the money, and there isn’t a man in all of London who’ll let you have a shilling. You’ve got it all, but you’re a dead man, Harry Fabian.”

Life is futile. Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) has lived his whole life in the gutter, wasting his meagre savings on creative money-making schemes that always fall through, dreaming of a life of "ease and plenty," and dragging life-long sweetheart Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) down into the black abyss with him. Eking out a modest existence through hard work and perseverance is no option for him. No, Harry Fabian dreams big. He reaches for the stars, and, when he falls short, inevitably and painfully comes crashing back to earth. This is film noir, and film noir doesn't look too kindly upon those who dream bigger than is good for them. Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) was filmed in the squalid streets of London, and so appropriately represents the flip-side of the American Dream. Films like Sylvester Stallone's Rocky (1976) gained popularity precisely because they showed that dedication and self-belief can make a hero of even the most humble of men. The British don't offer the optimism of their trans-Atlantic cousins – here, success is reserved only for the corrupt.

During the film, Fabian is described as "an artist without an art." He certainly possesses the determination to strike it big, but he wields his passion indiscriminately, stepping on the wrong people's toes and so sealing his demise. One gets the sense that he wants to make an honest living, but is nonetheless prepared to take dishonest shortcuts in order to fast-track his success. Yet even among the most powerful underground figures, success is no guarantee of happiness: bulging night-club owner Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan) loses his discontented wife, whose own impatience to break free from her husband's ownership inadvertently sacrifices her financial stability. The sour wrestling promoter Kristo (Herbert Lom) loses the respect of his father, who is noble at heart but living hopelessly in the past. Only in the sad, betrayed eyes of Gene Tierney – regrettably underused in this film – does Dassin appear to find virtue, and so he offers her an alternative to the damned Fabian. Mary fittingly ends the film in the arms of an ordinary but dependable artist (Hugh Marlowe).

Filmed on-location in London by cinematographer Max Greene, Night and the City has an incredibly gritty, realistic immediacy. Too often, in American noir, it's only too clear that the characters are tramping through a studio-built set, in which one doesn't expect there to be any unpleasant surprises. Conversely, Dassin's decision to film in the shadowy city streets recreates that uncertain sense of dread one feels when trudging alone through an unfamiliar urban locale, exposed to the elements and whoever might happen to cross your path. The film was shot while Dassin was facing being blacklisted from Hollywood for his alleged affiliations with the Communist Party (he was betrayed to the HUAC by fellow noir directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle), leading a nervous Darryl F. Zanuck to urge "shoot the expensive scenes first." The American likely took some stylistic inspiration from Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949) – both of which concern wanted men who are betrayed by those they thought close to them. Reed, in turn, probably took wrestling inspiration for his own A Kid for Two Farthings (1955).

Jules Dassin passed away on March 31, 2008, having re-established his directing career in Europe with the stellar heist movie, Rififi (1955). Just one week earlier, star Richard Widmark also checked out, having lived a substantially fuller life than his on-screen persona. Widmark's manic performance is an interesting and multi-faceted one. Perfectly in tune with the character of Harry Fabian, nothing Widmark says sounds entirely convincing. There's always the slightest trace that he's bluffing – feigning toughness or otherwise stalling for time. He really is like a kid with ADHD, bouncing about with too much energy to spare and no worthwhile endeavour in which to invest it. Fabian's doom is never in any doubt. The spectre of death hovers above him for most of the film, but he stubbornly refuses to relent from his final grab at "being a somebody." Like a dead man walking, he goes through the motions, still trying to convince himself that this time he can win. He doesn't deserve, and doesn't receive, any sense of nobility… even in death.

Currently my #1 film of 1950:
1) Night and the City (Jules Dassin) *
2) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder) *
3) Harvey (Henry Koster)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray) *
5) Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)
6) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
7) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston) *
8) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)


Target #37: The Blue Dahlia (1946, George Marshall)

Directed by: George Marshall

Written by: Raymond Chandler

The Blue Dahlia (1946) is the third of four films in which Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake co-starred, and, of the three I've seen, it's probably the weakest, although only by the slightest of margins {the pair's obscure fourth collaboration, Saigon (1948), may take a little while longer to track down}. The film, directed by George Marshall from an original Raymond Chandler screenplay, is nonetheless a tense and exciting film noir thriller, with strong characters and good performances from a talented cast. The most incomprehensible film of 1946 was certainly Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) {adapted from Chandler's novel}, but this one still contains a genuinely baffling murder mystery, with enough red herrings to use as fishing bait. Ladd stars as Johnny Morrison, a recently-discharged bomber pilot who returns home to find out that his wife (Doris Dowling) has been unfaithful to him. When Helen Morrison winds up dead, Johnny is the prime suspect, and his predicament is only worsened by his resolve to avoid capture and solve the case himself.

Of course, Ladd is joined in the film by his previous co-stars from The Glass Key (1942) – namely, Veronica Lake and William Bendix. Lake, as usual, looks positively luminous, and her every line of dialogue sparkles precisely because she's the one saying it. Joyce Harwood is a strong character, as was Lake's role in This Gun for Hire (1942), her independence highlighted by her rather questionable decision to offer a ride to a lonely man strolling through the rain. Bendix is always entertaining to watch, and here he plays one of Ladd's sympathetic war buddies, who suffered a shrapnel head wound in the war and is plagued by incessant migraines caused by what he describes as "monkey music." Howard Da Silva lends some smarm as the conceited night-club owner who carried on a relationship with Ladd's wife, and could easily have committed her murder. Also worth mentioning is Will Wright as a sleazy, opportunistic hotel detective who knows more than he should, and is quite willing to sell what he knows.

I suppose that film noir, at its heart, is all about fate, and how it never works in our favour. If something can go wrong, it will. Audiences have always been willing to suspend disbelief on such unlikely coincidences, but I think that here Chandler bites off more than he could chew. Not only does Bendix unknowingly go off with Ladd's adulterous wife (an acceptable enough twist of chance), but, of all the rain-soaked people that Lake might have picked up off the side of the road, it happens to be the very person whose soon-to-be-deceased wife was having an affair with her husband. Had the pair met outside, say, Harwood's night-club, this happenstance might have been easier to digest, but, as it stands, the absurd coincidence only distracts from the storyline. No matter – the story itself is filled with unlikable characters and dubious motives, and with gunfire and murder in great abundance. Getting beaten up was always something that Ladd could accomplish most convincingly, and his frantic tussle with two armed gangsters is the highlight of the film.

Currently my #4 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) *
3) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) *
4) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall) *
5) Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Target #36: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle)

Directed by: Frank Tuttle

Written by: Graham Greene (novel), Albert Maltz (writer), W.R. Burnett (writer)

As a piece of cinema, Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942) is both brief and insignificant, a throwaway crime story about a hardened assassin, a glamorous girl, a police manhunt and an international conspiracy. It's just what you'd expect from an adaptation of Graham Greene's "A Gun for Sale," one of those novels with such low literary aspirations that the author affectionately labelled them "entertainments" to distinguish from his more noble and artistic works. Greene certainly wasn't kidding – entertainment is provided in great abundance, the film delivering short and sharp thrills that keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. Alan Ladd, in his first major role, carves up the screen as an emotionally-tormented contract killer who will cradle a kitten in his arms, but won't take kindly to any woman who gets in his way. Veronica Lake, looking positively luminous, is the woman who gets in his way, but whose charms are enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. The success of their teaming spawned a fruitful partnership during the 1940s.

Philip Raven (Ladd) is afforded the introduction of a classic hard-boiled anti-hero. After waking up to lovingly greet a stray cat with fresh milk, he then rips open the dress of the landlady's daughter, who tries to disrupt the cat's breakfast, before reprimanding her with a taut slap across the side of the face. Raven is not presented to us as a hero, but neither as a villain; like all good film noir protagonists, his personality and motivations are tantalisingly ambiguous, and so our sympathies towards him are confused. Blonde bombshell Veronica Lake arrives on the scene with a lively performance of "Now You See It, Now You Don't" (her singing voice dubbed by Martha Mears) that is sure to have any male viewers quickly sitting upright. In this film, Lake has none of the frail passiveness that of her follow-up Ladd collaboration The Glass Key (1942), instead bringing an independent and subtly erotic charm that is reminiscent of what Lauren Bacall would provide two years later in To Have and Have Not (1944).

Alan Ladd here also benefits from the absence of a love interest. One of the few weaknesses of The Glass Key was the unintentionally awkward romantic sequences between Lake and himself. Ladd can surely play hard-boiled, but he doesn't do tender very well (unless the object of his affection is feline). In 'This Gun for Hire,' his relationship with Lake is first one of necessity, but gradually transforms into a mutual respect, and an understanding that hints just enough at sexual attraction without drawing attention to it. Robert Preston is adequate, though oddly insubstantial as the film's most reputable character, and Laird Cregar is interesting as the plump and cowardly villain who's inadvertently bitten off more than he can chew. The film winds down in its final twenty minutes or so, and the finale's weak attempt at patriotism – an apparent obligation under the current political climate – serves to distance the modern viewer from the engrossing and intimate thriller we had previously enjoyed. Nevertheless, if you see it on the rental shelf, this gun is very much worth hiring out.

Currently my #3 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle) *
4) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
5) The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler) *


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) *


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Target #32: Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl)

Directed by: John M. Stahl
Written by: Ben Ames Williams (novel), Jo Swerling (screenplay)
Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Vincent Price, Jeanne Crain, Mary Philips, Gene Lockhart, Darryl Hickman

I don't think I agree with those who have designated Leave Her to Heaven (1945) a film noir. This Technicolor picture – and it's surprising how much the presence of colour can distort the tone of a film – feels much closer to the claustrophobic domestic melodramas of the same period, such as Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), and Cukor's Gaslight (1944). But there's one important difference. By reversing the gender roles, and placing the power in the hands of the wife, director John M. Stahl here creates a formidable femme fatale, personified by the lovely and luminous Gene Tierney. The vibrant Technicolor photography is certainly pleasing to the eye, and the saturated colours add a perhaps-unintended touch of the surreal, but the dazzling colour palette distracts from and obstructs the film's darker themes. As much as I wouldn't like to deprive myself of Tierney's sparkling green eyes, I think that, in terms of atmosphere, Leave Her to Heaven would have worked better in black-and-white.

The film starts off in the classic noir style: told in flashback, the story opens with popular author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who meets an alluring woman, Ellen Berent (Tierney), on a train. Ellen quickly charms Richard with her dazzling looks and strong personality; soon, despite her own engagement to a prominent lawyer (Vincent Price), she has proposed their marriage, an offer he finds impossible to refuse. Here, Leave Her to Heaven takes a distinct turn in storytelling approach, abruptly shifting its attention to Ellen's perspective, at which point we begin to recognise that perhaps she isn't as lovely as her new husband has been led to believe. The new couple move to Richard's secluded lakeside lodge, where they must also care for his crippled younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman, giving one of those "excited boy scout" child performances that were popular in the 1940s). As the weeks go by, Ellen's near-obsessive love for Richard begins to brood anger, hatred and jealousy, culminating in the cruelest of acts.

Tierney's character initially elicits an amount of sympathy, especially given Richard's apparent inability to recognise his wife's desperate need for privacy and intimacy in their relationship. However, it doesn't take long before her behaviour, fuelled by suspicion and paranoia, becomes entirely contemptible, and there's no longer any trace of the charming enchantress we saw in Laura (1944). Ellen's psychosis is an intriguing one: she was obviously obsessed with love for her own father – what Freud called "feminine Oedipus attitude," or Electra complex – and, following his death, subsequently fell in love with Richard, who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. Such is her passion for her father, through Richard, that she cannot bear to share him with anybody; thus, her mania stems from the simple notion that "she loves too much." Ellen's murders are shocking in their own low-key simplicity, and Tierney, who received her only Oscar nomination for the role, carries out her evils with an icily-impassive face. But, geez, even this chilling portrayal can't make me stop loving her.

Currently my #5 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) Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl) *
6) Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang) *
7) Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi {The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail} (Akira Kurosawa)


Friday, September 19, 2008

Target #31: They Won't Believe Me (1947, Irving Pichel)

Directed by: Irving Pichel
Written by: Gordon McDonell (story), Jonathan Latimer (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Young, Susan Hayward, Jane Greer, Rita Johnson, Tom Powers, George Tyne, Frank Ferguson

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

Love, sex or money? This is the fatal question faced by Larry Ballentine, a compulsively adulterous husband with dollar signs where he ought to have a heart. Irving Pichel's They Won't Believe Me (1947) is a wonderful little-known film noir, a sardonic dissection of the mechanics of Fate, and a stark profile of a wretchedly corrupt, amoral and ultimately doomed personality. The film, which characterises the noir style down to the letter, is similar in tone to Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), as a sympathetic but morally-suspect man is drawn, not-altogether-reluctantly, into a destructive web of deceit and murder, though not entirely through the lure of a beautiful woman; Ballentine frequently digs his own grave here. Played with lazy cocksureness by Robert Young – a vague combination of Robert Mitchum and Ray Milland – our main protagonist may not have committed homicide, but he was still guilty of so much more. The story is told in flashback, as Ballentine, the accused in a murder trial, recounts his side of the incident, a last-ditch attempt to save his own neck.

There are three women in this story. Greta (Rita Johnson) is Ballentine's husband, an upright and charismatic businesswoman from a wealthy family, who knows both how her husband operates, and how she can control him with the promise of money. Verna Carlson (Susan Hayward), Ballentine's mistress, is a slick and crafty money-grabber. The couple, at least initially, have no delusions about their relationship: Verna is in it for his money, and he's in it for the sex (this theme, owing to the Production Code, is dealt with tastefully). Hayward plays the role to feisty perfection, and such was her cloaked malevolence that I half-expected her to crop up at the film's end, having somehow faked her own death, stolen Ballentine's money and skipped off to South America. Janice Bell (Jane Greer) is the polar converse of Hayward's femme fatale, perhaps the closest thing to love in Ballentine's life – their relationship, characterised by a mutual love of boating, apparently, seems genuinely platonic, a mutual understanding that our male hero promptly severs with his unquenchable thirst for wealth.I was surprised, given its relative obscurity nowadays, at just how strong a film They Won't Believe Me turned out to be. The main and supporting characters are played flawlessly, their traits and motivations explored with more than sufficient depth to justify their later actions, though one still wonders if Verna's apparent sincerity prior to the road accident is, indeed, genuine. As he recounts his tale to the murder jury, Ballentine frequently makes fatalistic allusions towards the inescapably of Fate – here personified in a crippled palomino horse. By the time he's finished telling his incredible story, which may or may not be true {Hitchcock pulled this false-flashback trick several years later, though I won't reveal the details}, we're left with a very raw taste in our mouths. We can sympathise to an extent with Ballentine's extraordinary run of bad luck, but much of his behaviour, even if one excludes the accusation of murder, is so utterly contemptible that he doesn't deserve to live. Yet, from the moment Ballentine catches a bullet in the back, we already know what the jury's verdict had been.

Currently my #6 film from 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
4) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
5) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
6) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
7) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
8) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)
9) Song of the Thin Man (Edward Buzzell)
10) The Senator Was Indiscreet (George S. Kaufman)


Friday, September 5, 2008

Target #30: The Glass Key (1942, Stuart Heisler)

Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Dashiell Hammett (novel), Jonathan Latimer (screenplay)
Starring: Alan Ladd, Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Bonita Granville, Richard Denning, Joseph Calleia, William Bendix, Frances Gifford, Donald MacBride, Moroni Olsen

In the early 1940s, the unofficial film noir style was only just beginning to find its feet, and much of its inspiration, at least plot-wise, was to be found in the hard-boiled detective novels of authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett {whose best-known creations are probably Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles}. "The Glass Key" was originally published by Hammett in 1931, and was first adapted to film by Frank Tuttle in 1935, with George Raft in the main role. Seven years later, director Stuart Heisler brought the story into the 1940s with his slick, professional tale of nasty political scheming. Very few punches are pulled, and many characters get well and truly "beat up," but the film itself seems somewhat dispensable at the end of the day. The oddball characters are intriguing without being memorable, their surfaces only scratched as far as the complicated plot requires; likewise, the performances themselves are worthwhile, if not altogether convincing. All things considered, The Glass Key (1942) is a solid film noir, but not a timeless one.

When political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) decides to back reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), he stirs up the anger of crime boss Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who will be crippled by the partnership. When Henry's meddlesome son (Richard Denning) is found murdered, everybody suspects Madvig of the crime, including the victim's beautiful sister Janet Henry (Veronica Lake). It falls to Madvig's hard-edged assistant Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) to sort out the truth of the matter, and to ensure that Varna's gang doesn't succeed in snuffing out Madvig's candidate from the political ballot. Ladd is curiously uneven in the main role. Though he courageously takes multiple beatings with a blood-tinged grin, and talks his way through swathes of lethal encounters, it is the unnecessary romantic moments that bring him down. Whenever he meets Janet Henry, Ladd suddenly acquires this curious lopsided smirk that makes him look weak and uncomfortable – it's hardly the expression of a man who's almost always in control of the situation.

Veronica Lake plays her role with a resolute passiveness that gives her character an air of innocence. However, as any good femme fatale should, her apparent inaction radiates a very subtle suggestion of menace, implying that Beaumont would do well to keep a peripheral eye on her movements. Donlevy is assuredly smug and confident as the political man who never loses face ("I just met the swellest dame... she smacked me in the kisser!"), and Calleia is suitably ominous as his sworn opponent. Unusually violent for a 1940s film, The Glass Key features men being thrown through windows, men throwing themselves out of windows and Alan Ladd being beaten within an inch of his life (courtesy of William Bendix, whose sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain is almost frightening). Heisler's film was reportedly an inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), though I more readily noticed parallels with the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990), in which Gabriel Byrne becomes estranged from his crime partner but nonetheless takes innumerable beatings for him.

Currently my #4 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
4) The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler) *
5) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)


Target #29: Dark Passage (1947, Delmer Daves)

Directed by: Delmer Daves
Written by: David Goodis (novel), Delmer Daves (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead, Tom D'Andrea, Clifton Young, Rory Mallinson, Houseley Stevenson, Douglas Kennedy

Dark Passage (1947) opens like a first-person shooter video game, the camera taking the main protagonist's point-of-view, and generally restricting the audience to what Humphrey Bogart can see. However, in choosing to utilise this unusual technique, director Delmer Daves does something very dangerous, almost suicidal: he doesn't show us Humphrey Bogart! This was not the first major use of the first-person perspective; Rouben Mamoulian tried it for the first five minutes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and, even more impressively, Robert Montgomery constructed an entire detective story from Philip Marlowe's perspective in Lady in the Lake (1947). But Dark Passage feels more audacious than both of these, most of all because Daves chose, for the entire opening half of his picture, to obscure the face of Hollywood's most celebrated and recognised star. When studio head Jack Warner asked for just another Bogart-Bacall picture, he sure as hell didn't expect this. It was a gamble that ultimately failed (financially, that is), but I can respect any filmmaker who's willing to mix things up a bit.

The film noir style is well-known for its regular decline into the creepy, surreal and absurd side of human existence. Writer David Goodis originally adapted the film's screenplay from his own 1946 novel, though Daves was subsequently commissioned to satisfactorily rewrite it. Dark Passage follows escaped criminal Vincent Parry (Bogart), who claims to be innocent of his wife's murder, and who uses his tentative freedom to try to clear his name. After a sympathetic taxi driver (Tom D'Andrea) points Vincent in the direction of a demented plastic surgeon (Houseley Stevenson), he eventually accepts the accommodation of a mysterious young woman, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), who staunchly believes in his innocence. The supporting cast really shines here, particularly Clifton Young as a weaselly small-time crook who hatches an ambitious scheme to blackmail Irene for $60,000. Uniquely, much of the filming took place on-location in San Francisco, California, with the outdoor settings adding a vitality to the photography that is rather refreshing.

The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall doesn't quite sizzle here as it usually does, and that our hero spends much of his time behind the camera certainly doesn't help. The film is strongest when it spends time with its supporting characters, which makes me think that Dark Passage might have been a better film had it been cast with relative unknowns. Daves obviously produced the film with one eye on his prized romantic couple, and the accompanying marketing opportunities, and, consequently, the story often tries too hard to create a memorable romance. Though the plot begins to meander towards the predictable in its final reel, the opening acts prove especially engrossing, not only because of the intriguing camera gimmick, but because we absolutely have no idea where this unusual story, with its cast of incredibly offbeat characters, is trying to lead us. It's also rewarding to try and guess how long Jack Warner could tolerate not seeing Humphrey Bogart's face until he threatened to shoot somebody; I think we can safely estimate this figure to sit just beyond one hour.

Currently my #4 film from 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
4) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
5) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *


A warm welcome to "Shooting in the Dark"

Of course, I say a "warm" welcome, but frankly I wish you the opposite. This is a blog about film noir - that means darkened midnight streets, nefarious shadows skulking in the alleyways, main protagonists clutching for wealth and immortality, only to come flailing back to earth, betrayed by the alluring women in whom they placed all their trust. It's about deceit, back-stabbing and blackmail; hard rain on slickened asphalt roads.

I was recently asked by a friend how I might describe the film noir style in one line. My response was so brilliant that I feel compelled to post it now: "It's about women. How they promise you sex, and then screw you over." My delicate turn-of-phrase (of which I'm admittedly proud) highlights one of the core themes of film noir. It's all about mistrust - of men, of women, of our own gut instinct and base passions. Eddie Muller described it thus:

"Film Noir is the flip side of the all-American success story. It's about people who realize that following the program will never get them what they crave. So they cross the line, commit a crime and reap the consequences. Or, they're tales about seemingly innocent people tortured by paranoia and ass-kicked by Fate. Either way, they depict a world that's merciless and unforgiving."
Film noir was born in the early years of 1940s, perhaps with High Sierra (1941), perhaps with The Maltese Falcon (1941) - it doesn't really matter. What matters is that Europe was already in the grip of WWII, and even citizens of the United States could glimpse a darkened shadow gradually descending over their colourful world. The optimism borne from the end of WWI had long ago faded, replaced only by memories of the Great Depression, which had crippled countries worldwide through much of the 1930s.

Film noir is all about the realisation that the human race has outlived its usefulness, is about to explode from within. With this realisation comes the recognition that one will never achieve their hopes and dreams via conventional means, and so law-breaking becomes the only alternative. What these hapless fools don't realise is that, wherever there's a man waiting to do something stupid, there's always a women who'll exploit him for it. Our man's idiocy never goes unrewarded, and either death or imprisonment - usually death - greets his spectacular downfall. In a sense, it was the influence of the Production Code (which forbade happy endings for criminals) that ensured most film noirs utilised a dark, morbid finale, a cruel end for a desperate, pitiable soul.

The good folks at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? have compiled an unranked list of the top 250 American film noir pictures from 1940-1959 (with a couple of exceptions to the rule). To complement my Shooting Lessons quest to see the TSPDT Top 1000 films, I've decided to set up "Shooting in the Dark," in which I plan to post reviews for every noir film I see from the list. I don't expect this blog to be updated quite so regularly as my other one, but, over time, I hope to accumulate quite a good selection of reviews. To date, I've seen a measly 29 films from the list - for the sake of convenience, I'll name it at 28 for now, and my recent review of Dark Passage (1947) will afterwards serve as the blog opener. The 28 films are:

* Asphalt Jungle, The
* Big Sleep, The
* Cape Fear [1961]
* Double Indemnity
* High Sierra
* In a Lonely Place
* Key Largo
* Killer's Kiss
* Killing, The
* Kiss Me Deadly
* Lady from Shanghai, The
* Laura
* Lost Weekend, The
* Maltese Falcon, The
* Murder, My Sweet/Farewell My Lovely
* Night of the Hunter, The
* Notorious
* On Dangerous Ground
* Out of the Past
* Scarlet Street
* Secret Beyond the Door
* Shadow of a Doubt
* Spellbound [1945]
* Strangers on a Train
* Sunset Blvd.
* Third Man, The
* Touch of Evil
* White Heat

As you can see, I've got a long way to go, but isn't that what film noir is all about - the utter futility of effort? In my opening comments, I've tried to give a very brief summary of what noir means to me, and it's a style of which I've become rather fond. However, I've only scratched the surface. Perhaps, as I begin to develop my viewing experience, I'll start writing up a more detailed essay on the nature of film noir.
But, for now, I'll leave you with a quote from my favourite spoof, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982):

"All dames are alike: they reach down your throat and they can grab your heart, pull it out and they throw it on the floor, step on it with their high heels, spit on it, shove it in the oven and cook the shit out of it. Then they slice it into little pieces, slam it on a hunk of toast, and serve it to you and then expect you to say, 'Thanks, honey, it was delicious.'"