Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To & Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

Okay, slightly off-topic, but I figured I'd slip these in here since I took them in with my brother as a double-feature.

Dumb and Dumber To

** out of 5

It's nice to have the old morons back, and a lot of the jokes are hilarious, but a lot of this film seems like it's trying too hard, to the point of being embarrassing, as some of the gags go too far for too and get too gross, resulting in poor audience response.  In addition, to the gross-out humor that goes too far, there is something offputting about watching two grown men behave and densely as these characters do;  in the earlier film, the actors were young enough to accept it as a couple of guys too dumb to know better, but here it vaguely smacks of laughing at mentally retarded people.

Penguins of Madagascar

**** out of 5

The best part of the madagascar movies, these penguin heroes prove that they can manage a movie of their own.  This film thankfully keeps the ugly humans that kept showing up in those films in favor of more appealingly designed animals, including a rival team of world-saving polar animals, and a rubber-faced octopus villain.  The backstory of this penguin team is fleshed out in good humorous fashion, while giving us more reason to root for this team (as if we needed it), and setting up the plot that propels this fun film.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953)

Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) Poster
**** out of 5

Well, film noir and Noirvember is behind us now, and the next month will focus on silent comedy and holiday films.  This film is only a sort-of in either category.   It has dialogue, but any speaking serves mostly as sound effects to underscore the visuals of this gag-filled comic masterpiece.  And the holiday is not Christmas, but a summer vacation of the sort Americans wish they could enjoy like the French do.

The first time I watched this, I didn't really get it.  It was slow, with very little of the laugh-out-loud slapstick-style comedy I was familiar with.  Comedy, yes, but this is not the hilariously manic-paced comedy of the Marx brothers or the wonderful eye-jabbing, face-slapping absurdity of the Stooges.  The humor of Tati is far more subtle, and requires patience and attentive observation.  Even then, the laugh-out-loud moments are few;  this film's humor is the sort that amuses and may elicit a closed-mouth laugh every several minutes, but it is an amusement that is thoroughly satisfying and universally appealing.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Hollow Triumph (1948)

Hollow Triumph (1948) Poster

*** out of 5

"It's a bitter little world full of sad surprises"

This movie has also gone by the title "The Scar," which might qualify as a spoiler.  One of the key plot twists involves a scar, which is the distinguishing feature between criminal Paul Henreid and his doppleganger, psychiatrist Paul Henreid.  But this film thankfully offers much more as a noir than a simple mistake involving left-cheek/right-cheek mix-ups.  It manages to make that mistake symbolic of the fate that overtakes all wrong-doers in the dark world of noir.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wise Guys (1986)

Wise Guys (1986) Poster

*** out of 5

There's a great tradition of gangster comedies, from Brother Orchid and A Slight Case of Murder to My Cousin Vinny and Analyze This, but one that has been lost in the shuffle is this forgotten title from the mid-80's, with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo.  It is directed by a guy who's probably much better known for his serious crime films like Scarface, Carlito's Way, and The Untouchables-- Brian DePalma.  There's a lot that is inherently funny about the mafia to begin with.  Gangster movies always seem like they're just about to burst into comedy at any moment, even when they're at their grimmest "Is this the end of Rico" and "I ain't so tough" moments.  Here, DePalma bursts those seems wide open and pokes fun at the absurdity of The Family, even while he maintains some of the somber, deathly-seriousness of the threat they pose to those who get in their way.  And with Devito and Piscopo as his principle funnymen, this movie manages to never run out of funny or fun, and it ends with a real bang.

Fallen Angel(1945)


Fallen Angel (1945) Poster

**** out of 5

"Even when i was a kid I was always beaten up for something I didn't do."

Without having seen the film, this sounds like a typical title given to a noir film. But once you've watched it, the aptness of the title in its many shades of meaning will be striking.  not only does it describe the moral state of both the lead female roles, one a church organist who falls for a cheap chiseler, the other a lower class gal who knows the game and how to play it, it also describes a central murder- when one of those women is killed- an angel who is literally fallen.

And the film itself is an unforgettable, first-rate classic noir, with some of the best noir pedigree in the genre: Otto Preminger directing, with outstanding performances by  Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Charles Bickford and Linda Darnell in the lead roles,and supporting performances by familiar faces like Bruce Cabot, John Carradine, Anne Revere and Percy Kilbride (a surprising performance that's miles from his Ma and Pa Kettle comedic bread-and-butter roles).  The script is one of the best, with dialogue that goes beyond the one-liner cracks that most lesser noirs settled for; here, the dialogue's bitter wit builds one line upon the next in a way that progresses much more naturally, like real conversation, but is still written in a clever and entertaining manner.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bunco Squad (1950)

*** out of 5

This short, quick-paced film has great momentum, but contains many elements that were not made the most of- including the under-used Dante, a real-life magician who plays essentially himself, as a retired magician dedicated to debunking spiritualists as cons, much in the mold of the more well-know Harry Houdini. Character actress Elizabeth Risdon also appeara, in a more serious part here than she usually played, as an elderly woman being conned out of her money by a circle of fake palm readers and spiritualists.

I recently got to see an original poster for this film at an exhibition put on by Susqehanna University graphic design professor Mark Fertig, who runs the blog wheredangerlives.blogspot.com and recently published the terrific book Film Noir 101: Film Noir posters from the 1940's to 1950's.     Noir expert Eddie Muller was there to give an illuminating talk, and when we arrived upon this poster, mentioned an effort underway to restore the film.  While it's not exactly a forgotten gem, it's definitely a fun way to pass 67 minutes.  If it only was half as awesome as its poster, it'd be a definite classic of the genre.

Monday, November 24, 2014

One Girl's Confession (1953)


One Girl's Confession (1953) Poster

*** out of 5

"I know, 'he's different.' They're all the same, they just have different faces so you can tell 'em apart."

Cleo Moore in a Hugo Haas noir.  That match-up could describe about a half-dozen films from 1952's Strange Fascination through 1957's Hit and Run, after which she left acting and married a real estate tycoon.

This one is full of a lot of uniquely colorful environments and characters, and manages to maintain a fair amount of tension, along with its loads of noir atmosphere.

Night Editor (1946)

Night Editor (1946) Poster

*** out of 5

"You're like a sickness. I was sick!"

Okay, so the title really tells very little of what the film is about, but is more a reference to the film's framing device, as the movie is a story told by the night editor to his fellow newspaper staff members.

The story he tells is pure noir.  A cop who is running around on his wife (and young son) at night with another girl witnesses a murder, but can't report it out of fear for the scandal it would cause.  Turns out, the girl he was with knows more about the murder than she lets on, and her motives for wanting him to keep it secret run deeper than merely protecting their respective families.  How it all plays out is a very entertaining b-noir story, and the wrap-up at the end makes sense of the newsroom framing device in a quite unexpected way.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Running Man (1987)

The Running Man (1987) Poster

*** out of 5

"I'm warning you, I get sick. Air sick, car sick. I'm gonna throw up all over you."
"Go ahead. Won't show on this shirt."

Classically absurd Schwartzenegger sci-fi with a dose of real grim satire of America violent entertainment culture, police-state mentalities, and complicit media that is willing to cover up wrong-doing if it means better ratings or the further cementing of their own political ideologies.

You get all the awful campy sci-fi costumes and scenery you would expect of the 80's, and some of the Austrian Oak's most outrageous one-liners in this film, plus former Family Feud host Richard Dawson as the cold, ratings-minded host of the gruesome titular game show in which convicts are hunted down by gladiator-like "Stalkers" played by the likes of Jesse Ventura,  Jim Brown, and some famous wrestlers of the time like would-be opera singer Erland van Lidth and the imposing Professor Toru Tanaka.

And if that doesn't sound odd enough to make you want to see it at least once, Stephen King wrote the original novel under a pseudonym.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Death Wish (1974)


Death Wish (1974) Poster

*** out of 5

Having never seen this before, I was unsure what to expect.  What a shocker!  It's a film in which vigilantism is actually praised as a means of stopping crime, and the ending does nothing if not reinforce that interpretation!  Like in noir film, where you often find yourself rooting for a criminal, because the guys chasing him are worse, here you find the movie putting you in the position of pulling for a guy who goes out and guns down thugs and crooks as a form of  vengeance for the rape and murder of his wife and daughter, or else just because that was the last straw for his sense of justice. I for one generally don't care for that kind of moral ambiguity in a film,, but had to at least enjoy the filmmakers' craft behind the movie regardless. Another plus of the film is the Herbie Hancock music that scores the film with a jazzy, up-tempo 70's sense of cool.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Man in the Dark (1953)


**** out of 5

"I was born on a Monday, I may as well go on one too- like dirty laundry."

It's noir- in 3d!  not only does this film incorporate a fun gimmick of stereoscopic entertainment, it is also pretty great noir.  It plays on the classic amnesia trope of the man who doesn't know the evil things he's responsible for, but is still caught in the web of the consequences.  It's a great thrill-ride -- literally, at the end, as the climactic chase takes place on a rollercoaster at an amusement park.
The twist on the amnesia resulting from a misguided attempt to extract the evil part of his brain by a slightly off-kilter brain surgeon is a nice touch, and the cinematic way in which the memories slowly come back is great stuff as well.
Oh, and we have another in the long line of dogged insurance investigators  in this, a man who only wants to recover the money, and is willing to let Edmond O'Brian's character walk if he will give it up. Audrey Totter also has a nice part as O'Brian's moll who has a change of heart when she sees how nice he is after his lobotomy...
And if you happen to watch it in 3d, you'll get a lot of great stuff-coming-at-you moments, too!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Kiss of Death (1947)


Kiss of Death (1947) Poster

**** out of 5

"For a nickel I'd grab him and shove both my thumbs in his eyes."

Director Henry Hathaway has successfully nailed the blend of documentary-stylings and exciting noir drama here, with this story of Victor Mature as a crook who's got a good heart but is reluctant to turn stool pigeon on his fellow criminals.  The film has a great cast,  but it is Richard Widmark who owns the film as the giggling, psychopathic killer who Mature must run from after turning stoolie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Caught (1949)


Caught (1949) Poster

*** out of 5

"You're a big man, but you're not big enough to destroy her."

Max Ophuls.  James Mason.  Robert Ryan.  Barbara Bel Geddes. For the win.
Barbara Bel Geddes is very good in this dramatic and interesting tale of a social climber who realizes too late that what she really wants isn't security, but happiness, something wealthy industrialist Robert Ryan refuses to give her.  Ryan makes his character unique and compelling, and just as unlikeable as possible, with a distinctive psychosomatic heart condition brought on by an ego that refuses to lose to anyone at anything. James Mason is the kind, poor man's physician Bel Geddes turns to as her alternative to the cold Ryan character.   Curt Bois has an interesting supporting role as Franzi Kartos, the weaselly little man Ryan sends out to gather his women, and generally do his dirty work for him, but who ultimately has a basic humanity that Ryan's character is incapable of allowing in himself.

The camerawork is also noteworthy, for many attempts to bring fluid, active camera movement into play in ways that were seldom attempted at the time. Particularly interesting is a scene played out in a single shot that sweeps back and forth in the doctor's office, in a conversation between Mason, his obstetrician partner Frank Ferguson, and Bel Gedde's empty receptionist desk and chair that stands between their two adjacent offices.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Destination Murder (1950)


*** out of 5

"I'm not in the habit of having murder pinned on me."

For such a low budget film, this one is a lot more fun than it should be. Joyce MacKenzie as the daughter of a murdered man, doing the job she thinks the police aren't, tracking her father's killer by any means necessary, including feigning attraction to the gunman, and working as a cigarette girl for the nightclub owned by the men behind the job. Hurd Hatfield is the sly club-owner who Mackenzie.  bu the big unique highlight though is Albert Dekker as the bizarre assassin who speaks of himself in third person, and must have Moonlight Sonata playing on a player piano while he does his killings.  "Armitage wants to hear some music."

The House on 92nd Street (1945)

The House on 92nd Street (1945) Poster

*** out of 5

This is another KindaNoir (TM).  It's more WWII spy film than noir, but it's still pretty good entertainment.  Continuing the trend of documentary-style dramas that Fox particularly produced a several of, 92nd Street (how many House titles are there in the annals of noir, anyways?) details the workings of FBI tracking of fifth columnist spy rings leading up to US involvement in WWII, and does a great job of balancing and authentic look of documentary footage with dramatic entertainment.  Director Henry Hathaway would perfect this balance in later noir entries like Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777, 13 Rue Madeleine, and Fourteen Hours. (lots of addresses and numbers in film noir titles, too!)

Monday, November 17, 2014

The File on Thelma Jordan (1950)


**** out of 5

Barbara Stanwyck was outstanding in  precode dramas.  She shined in screwball comedy. But she was also a terrific film noir actress.    Oh, and Wendell Corey's in this too, as an assistant DA who gets sucked into the noir trap she lays for him, but that he probably deserves, based on the unpleasant impression we are given of his character from the beginning.  

Interesting side note that I'll dwell on more than the film, which is one of the top tier pieces of noir entertainment of the period. Barbara Stanwyck wears an identical piece of jewelry as in one of our previously featured films, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  See if you can spot it:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Paycheck (2003)


Paycheck (2003) Poster

**** out of 5, which is better than most critics gave it at the time.

John Woo actioner from a Philip K Dick story, starring Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart, and Uma Thurman, all of whom have been or will be in batman films.  Also of note in the cast: Paul Giamatti, and future star of Dexter, Michael C. Hall.
Though not part of the classic Film Noir cycle, this movie's plot owes quite a bit to the genre, so it's fitting that I happened to take in a viewing of it during Noirvember.  There's a unique variation on the theme of amnesia,  There's a dead man, Ben Affleck has the role of The Wrong Man, being hunted by the FBI while simultaneously trying to escape the real bad guys who want to stop him.  There's even briefly a Femme Fatale, who impersonates Thurman to attempt to mislead Affleck to his demise.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Convicted (1950)

Convicted (1950) Poster

**** out of 5

Should be considered along with some of the great old prison drama like The Big House, San Quentin, or Invisible Stripes.  As a remake of 1931's The Criminal Code this story already has a lot going for it, but the cast is what makes it really shine- Glenn Ford as the titular convict, Broderick Crawford as the sympathetic DA-turned-warden, Dorthy Malone as his pretty, understanding daughter, Millard Mitchell and Will Geer as Ford's troublesome but protective cellmates, Carl Benton Reid as the sadistic captain Douglas,  and Frank Faylen as the prison stooley. Also putting in brief but memorable appearances are Ed Begley  as a backwards parole board head who puts politics ahead of justice, and former Charlie Chan actor Roland Winters as a rock-headed corporate attorney sent in to defend Glenn Ford's character in court.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)


The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Poster

***** out of 5

"You're driving along and SMACKO, your own hometown hits you smack in the face."

Top-notch film noir that fires on all cylinders, while not getting stuck in any of the ruts of typical noir cliches.  This story is peopled by characters who each in their own way are attempting to escape their past, as symbolized by the town of Iverstown, in which they all grew up.  I could elaborate on that theme, but the film does it much better than any written analysis could.
Instead I'll just point out one cool shot I noticed that really summed up the story visually-  Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are on the spiral staircase (so many great ones in film noir), framed by a window that resembles a spiderweb, with a sheer, cobweb-looking drapery hanging over it.  Stanwyck's hands are grasping toward Van Heflin, half-pleading, half-menacing, as she tries to convince him that he has a perfect chance to kill her husband and have her to himself-  Kirk Douglas lies drunk at the bottom of the stairs, where he stumbled down drunk; Van Heflin could easily break his neck and claim it was a tragic accident. This pivotal moment ties together everything else in the film leading up to it into one ultimate decision-  does Heflin step into the spider's parlor to be dragged into the noir spidersweb?  Well, you'll have to watch it for yourself to find out.
This film goes into the dark corners of the human heart, and takes the viewers along with it, forcing them to accept a happy ending that involves double suicide as the only resolution and escape from the webs of a very enticing spider.

Pitfall (1948)


Pitfall (1948) Poster

*** out of 5

" Your conscience? You say it like it's a dirty word!"

Not Dick Powell's best noir outing, but has some moments of greatness, and some excellent performances despite a lethargic opening, it picks up quickly.  Lizabeth Scott is really good in this, and Raymond Burr's performance easily ranks up there with Van Heflin from The Prowler as one of the creepiest characters in noir.  One element I liked was the way the film repeats 3 times throughout the film a similar scene of Powell walking into work through the office on the way to his desk, and the way the scene is played each time perfectly reflects the dramatic progression of the story.  The first time, in the beginning, he is listless, reflecting his dissatisfaction with his life, marriage, and career path.  The second time is after spending a night out on the town with Lizabeth Scott's character;  he is newly enlivened, happily greeting everyone as he passes them;  she has added a new joy to his life, and it shows.  The final office entrance is near the end, as the darkness of his wrong choices is closing in on him, and he has lost all the joy of life he previously had.  Now he has no hope for the future.   Now he is a true noir character whose sins have come back to punish him.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rage in Heaven (1941)


Rage in Heaven (1941) Poster

**** out of 5

"I haven't changed much.  My trousers have grown a little longer is all"

Woody Van Dyke directs this thriller from a James Hilton story about a woman over whos affection two childhood friends contend.   Ingrid Bergman as the girl in question is her usual excellent self.  And in a unique twist, Robert Montgomery is the sadistic, narcissistic, paranoid, delusional villain, and George Sanders is the nice guy everyone roots for.  The themes of jealousy take this story to really dark territory, and the twisted plot Montgomery rigs to make his suicide appear to be a murder by Sanders turns the film into a great example of Wrong Man Noir.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sleep, My Love (1948)


**** out of 5

Though its title seems intended to cash in on the noir classic Murder, My Sweet (1944), it's not really as much a typical noir, as its story is more along the lines films like Hitchcock's thrillers like Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941),  or the Peter Godfrey-directed The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947).  Actually, it's a lot like that last title, substituting the fatal glass of milk for a cup of warm cocoa, and adding a dollop of subliminal hypnosis. One might call this sub-genre of noir the Gaslight genre, after the most well-known example;  they all share in common the central plot element of a wife whose husband is attempting to make her think she's going crazy.
Douglas Sirk directs this tense, moody drama, which stars Claudette Colbert as the innocent wife, Don Ameche as the plotting husband, and Robert Cummings as the new friend who must help save the day.
Typical noir or not, this is great entertainment on a dark night, alone or with a loved one.  Raymond Burr is in a minor role as the policeman who is looking for answers to Claudette Colbert's mysterious nocturnal wanderings.  We'll see him again in another investigator role coming up that is far more unsavory... so stay tuned!

Loophole (1954)


*** out of 5

"We'd like to recheck your big money."

This falls into the subgenre of film noirs that one might call "The Wrong Man" films (appropriate, I think given Hitchcock produced a film with exactly that title which perfectly represents the genre).
Barry Sullivan is a banker who takes the heat when a man posing as a bank examiner empties his large bills out for him. (this won't be the last we'll see of this occupation-  there's another prominent example coming up in a future film).  It starts a bit slow by attempting the documentary-style intro that was made popular by films like Kansas City Confidential, but once we get into the action, there's little question that this is solid noir. Charles McGraw plays an insurance investigator like he did in Roadblock, but this time a much more tenacious, pit-bull type, who just won't give his man a chance once he gets in his mind that Sullivan is guilty.  Dorothy Malone plays Sullivan's supportive wife, standing by him despite all evidence.  The film also has an excellent Femme Fatale character in Mary Beth Hughes, whose greed drives the criminal to his actions.  Don Beddoe makes a unique mark as the guilty man, a middle-aged shlub working at another bank, just trying to get enough money keep his girl happy.

The result of this mix is terrific entertainment- for a B-film.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Nocturne (1946)


**** out of 5

"He was A ladykiller- but don't get any ideas- I'm no lady."

This film represents the kind of story that is the bread and butter of any noir fan's playlist.

The opening scene nails that film noir feeling, with an off-kilter womanizing pianist blithely giving his latest fling the kiss-off while composing her a farewell tune on the keyboard, until his nocturne (That's the title, get it?) is interrupted by a gunshot that ends his heartless rhapsodizing.
George Raft is a police detective on the trail of a killer.  He tracks down all the possible suspects with a dogged determination that gets him in trouble with his boss and his badge taken from him, and still he presses on.  His number one adviser on the case? Amusingly, its his mother, whom he still lives with.  Mabel Paige brings a lot of humor to the part, which ends up being pivotal unraveling the mystery.  Joseph Pevney plays another pianist, called Fingers, who knew the deceased, but didn't have as much luck in his career.  Lynn Bari is the main female character in the story, toward whom George Raft find himself drawn despite her being a key figure in his investigation.  She's more of an Almost Fatale, because she turns out to be the Good Girl, despite initially being more of a temptation to Raft than an honest love interest.
There are some slow scenes in the film, which is more the result of poor editing and a middlin' director behind the camera, but the script is full of great noir dialogue and patter. It's no wonder, as it is crafted by Jonathan Latime, who has a long list of great credits to his name, from early protonoirs like The Glass Key, to full-on noir classics like The Big Clock and Night Has a Thousand Eyes, to the sequel to From Here to Eternity-- Back From Eternity, to several episodes of Perry Mason and even a Columbo title to his name.
Fun B-movie noir like this shouldn't be missed.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Prowler (1951)

The Prowler (1951) Poster

**** out of 5

"I'll be seeing you, Susan!"

This film has a good rep in the world of Noir Fandom (it's a small world, sadly), and with good reason.  It's *very* noir. But simultaneously with its being very quintessential noir, it is very unique, in the ways it turns noir tropes on their head.  The Femme Fatale is an Homme Fatale.  The  entire last act takes place in outdoors, far from the city, mostly in daylight. And unlike many noirs, it doesn't glamorize marital infidelity, but shows it in all its unpleasant horror.
Van Heflin is one of the ultimate cinematic creeps (at least up to that time), and Evelyn Keyes the beautiful, neglected housewife he seduces and whose husband he kills to have her for himself.  
Blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo created the script without credit, and it shows.  Not only is it very well-written but it is very red-leaning, as it seeks to subvert western ideals like the cop being the good guy, and arguing against the capitalist notion that, as one character repeatedly intones over the radio, "the cost of living is going down!"  Right or wrong, the attitudes of this film certainly reflect the disillusionment of its time, and continues to accurately depict the depravity of the human heart, and the deadly results of allowing that depravity to prevail.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Locket (1946)

The Locket (1946) Poster

*** out of 5

"You're no psychiatrist, you can't tell truth from a lie. you're just a lovesick quack."

This is the "Inception" of flashbacks.  What Chris Nolan's film does for dreams, this did for flashbacks.  Maybe it helped inspire his movie "Memento"? The narrated flashbacks details in this story end up going 4 layers deep, making for quite complex storytelling.  The drawback to the technique is that it essentially breaks the film up into 4 mini-stories, making it less cohesive than it could have been.

Regardless, this film earns a respectable place in the annals of noir, not only for its use of narration and flashback, but especially for the way it plays out its final act.  That it is an act of kindness that ultimately causes Laraine Day's character to reach her come-uppance is a notable example of the kind of cruel irony of fate that pervades the genre.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole (1951) Poster

**** out of 5

"I met a lot of hard boiled eggs in day, but you- you're about 20 minutes!"

One of Billy Wilder's darkest films, this isn't a typical noir.  It has none of the standard superficial elements that most folks think of with noir cinema-  Kirk Douglas as the lead plays a character who is far too twisted to be considered an anti-hero, and the dislike he has for Jan Sterling's character makes her something less than a femme fatale, and more of just a Femme Despicable, just one more tool for Billy Wilder's biting satirical indictment of the media-hungry, self-serving, callousness so present in the culture of both that time, and our own. But as dark and unlikeable as he makes Douglas's greed-driven reporter, it only makes the rest of the people in the film look worse by comparison, from the crooked sheriff and contractor who agree to his plan to delay the rescue of the man trapped in a 400-year-old Indian cliff dwellings, to the newspaper owners clamoring for exclusive rights to Douglas's story, to the crowds of spectators and profiteers greedily lapping up the story and the money it brings them.  By the climax of the film the tragedy has grown into a literal media circus, complete with ferris wheels and all!
But the essential central tenet of noir is very much in force-  wrong choices lead to certain judgment.  By the time Douglas realizes the error of his ways, it is too late, not only for the man in the hole, but for his greedy wife, and particularly for Douglas himself.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Hunted (1948)


Hunted, The (1948)

*** out of 5

"Tell me, what happens to a guy's heart when he becomes a cop?"

This is poverty row noir at is best.  Despite its limited budget and set-bound story, the scenario is classic noir, and the dialogue is full of searing repartee and grim banter.  Despite pretty basic camera work, the story is engaging enough that I had to check the writer's pedigree.  Steve Fisher, who gets credit for the screenplay, has his name attributed to a number of much more highly recognizable noir titles, including Lady in the Lake, I Wake Up Screaming, Dead Reckoning, Tokyo Joe, and lesser know ones like Destination Tokyo, Johnny Angel, Hell's Half Acre, Terror Street, a late Frank Borzage film, and one of the Thin Man stories.

Preston Foster is the hard-boiled cop, bitter because he felt betrayed by the girl he had to arrest for theft.  Ice queen of noir, Belita is the girl in question, equally embittered for having been wrongly locked up.  Naturally, things get pretty dark before light finally shines on the lovers frustrated by fate.  Charles McGraw shows up late in the film as a policeman giving the real criminal the third degree, in a minor role that nevertheless showcases the kind of charismatic performances that made him s reliable lead man in so many classic noirs.

Mr. Soft Touch (1949)


Mr. Soft Touch (1949) Poster

*** out of 5

Okay, this is more of a comedy-drama-roamance-gangster-christmas movie than a proper film noir, but don't let that stop you from checking it out.  It features Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes in a great pair of roles, and surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes  Beulah Bondi, Percy Kilbride, Ted de Corsia, Gordon Jones, and John Ireland.
The comedy is light, the drama is tough, the romance natural, with an assortment of gangsters who either mean business, or are foils for the comic parts of the picture, and the Christmas ending is worthy of being included in the same class as The Preacher's Wife, Pocketful of Miracles, The Lemon Drop Kid, and Remember The Night.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)


The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Poster

***** out of 5

Wow.  What a great one!  I can't believe this is the first time I ever got to see this movie.  It won't be the last.

Everything about it is well-crafted.  It isn't necessarily "realistic," but then it isn't meant to be, either.  Like all the best noir films, it takes the grim attitudes of its post-war audiences, melts them down, and saturates it with darkness and shadow, and crafts it into a masterpiece of heightened tension and drama, full of potent symbolism & imagery, operatic passions, unflinching depiction of man's darkest depravities, and sends its characters into the inescapable whirlpool of fate , rendering them to the cold mercilessness of consequences of their own actions.

The actors in this film are uniformly excellent, with several standouts.  John Garfield is his usual restless drifter character that he played so well in so many films, Lana Turner is running on about
50,000 gigawatts of star power in a role that is probably the best of her career (as far as I've seen so far), and Cecil Kellaway as her poor schlub of a husband gives outstanding support to the film.  As the ruthlessly competitive lawyers, Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames dominate their screentime, even over the charismatic leads, Garfield and Turner.  Oh, and Fred Flintstine is in this too-  Alan Reed, that is, playing an investigator for Cronyn, who decided to branch out into the blackmail business.  Noir favorite Audrey Totter even makes an appearance, in an all-too-brief scene as The Other Woman.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Black Angel (1946)


Black Angel (1946) Poster

**** out of 5

This is essential film noir.  Its plot is frequently far-fetched, but the characters are archetypal, and quintessentially noir, and the stylish visuals scream of the kind of cinematic innovations that are seen in the best noir films of the period -from that first fancy trick camera shot sweeping up the side of the apartment building into the chandelier-lit room where the soon-to-be victim of the central murder mystery is preparing for death, to the brilliantly executed scene in which the murder is discovered (love the way the mirror is employed to depict the discoverer's sense of disorientation!), to the feverish nightmare revelation of the killer.

June Vincent is the wife of the man convicted of the murder, and by initiating the investigation on her own, despite the fact that he had been unfaithful to her (with the victim), makes her unique in film noir as simultaneously taking on the archetypes of Detective and The Good Girl.  As the husband of the murdered woman, to whom Vincent turns for help in finding the real murderer, Dan Duryea is great in a role that could easily have been hokey as written; he just embraces the part, with all the hard-to-swallow literary irony of his relationship with June Vincent. Peter Lorre is sly and nuanced as the man they suspect of murder, and gives an especially well-layered performance.  This is a character with secrets, yes-  but not the ones initially hinted at, and he acts that part perfectly, not giving anything away to the audience until it's supposed to know about it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Rififi (1955)


Rififi (1955) Poster

***** out of 5

One of the all-time great heist stories, this was director Jules Dassin's first film made after blacklist-imposed exile from Hollywood, and it seems if anything that Dassin's work is actually liberated by his being ousted from the studio system of Hollywood, in every possible way, and mostly for the better.

The 20-minute dialogue-less heist sequence is probably the frequently touted element of the film, but it is filled with other moments of greatness-  the final car drive in which a dying man is attempting to return a kidnapped child to its mother is perhaps the most emotional compelling scene, and as a result, the tension of the sequence is probably greater than the heist itself, which like with any noir film crime, you already know is going to end badly.  Here, the viewer really is concerned, hoping that it won't end in tragedy.  The child is completely unaware of the danger, as he frolics in the back seat, pointing at the trees, scenery, and playing with his toy pistol (which, as it frequently is pointed at the driver, makes a potent symbol of the threat of death that awaits both the driver and his precious cargo).

The other fun thing about this film is that you get a chance to see Dassin himself as a actor, portraying an italian safecracker who is the part of the team that ultimately brings about the unraveling of the heist plot.  He's actually quite good in the role, and adds moments of humor to this masterfully dramatic film.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cry Danger (1951)

Cry Danger (1951) Poster

**** out of 5

Dick Powell is a freshly pardoned convict, wrongly accused of being involved in a bank job, and he's searching for the real crooks who let him take the fall.  Unlike many noir films, this character's arc begins where most end- with the twist of fate that sent them to prison despite all attempts to escape. But where the plot goes from here makes it a very interesting and engaging story.  Digging for answers leads Powell's character deeper into darkness before he is finally able to shine light on the dark corners of his own past and uncover the creeping vermin that crawl about there.
Richard Erdman is an opportunistic but crippled (physically and emotionally - the recently ended World War had a deep effect on the themes and world of film noir, and especially on its characters) fellow ex-marine who fakes an alibi for Powell to get him out, on the chance that he actually was guilty, and will split the still-undiscovered loot with him.
Rhonda Fleming plays Powell's old flame who married his best friend after his incarceration, only to have that husband also end up imprisoned for the same heist.   Her role is particularly nuanced and she makes an excellent noir femme- with secrets of her own that will bode ill for Powell's search for answers.
William Conrad is always an entertaining screen presence, and here he plays the crime boss who Powell suspects has the answers he seeks, and he takes quite a few brutal interrogations at an increasingly desperate Powell's hands, including an especially tense game of Russian roullette.
Regis Toomey represents the law in the film, and suits the part very well, playing detective Cobb as a level-headed, honest cop who is nevertheless pragmatic about the limits of the law's ability to solve all mysteries.  He knows he must depend ultimately upon fate to bring the real criminals to justice, and he is willing to wait there with the cuffs or a body bag to pick them up when it does.
Part of the fun of watching film noir is spotting familiar faces in the minor parts, usually uncredited; those actors who were never really big, but turn up in so many films that did, that they grow familiar and add a fun color to the black and white world of noir.  This film has a few notably minor players who you will see frequently in noir as tough guys, touts, bartenders, bookies, and mugs-  guys like Lou Lubin, Jay Adler, and Benny Burt, or women like Jean Porter, Gloria Saunders, and Kathleen Freeman (later familiar as a commedienne working with stars like Jerry Lewis).

Roadblock (1951)


Roadblock (1951)

**** out of 5

Well, the title may be a bit of a spoiler for the ending, but it's also a good metaphor for the story, as well, which is part of what makes this an excellent example of film noir.  The tough guy Charles McGraw is good at his job as an insurance detective, but it's a job with little future, at least not in the eyes of the girl he falls for.  So he uses the information he gets in that job to plot a big train robbery.  Naturally, this plan unravels for him, as you would expect in any proper film noir, and he quickly finds himself backed into a tighter and tighter corner until he has no escape from the consequences of his fateful decision to turn to the dark side.  Joan Dixon is the girl of his affection, Louis Jean Heydt the partner whose sharp investigative ability and doggedly righteous character he ends up fleeing, and Lowell Gilmore the mob boss he ties up with to attempt his big heist.
There is genuine tragedy in this story, when Joan Dixon has a change of heart, and marries McGraw, only to find he is no longer the honest man she rejected before growing to love.  Her sorrow is the most moving when McGraw meets his final end, as she observes that demise, knowing it was her own greed that drove McGraw to that end.