Category Archives: Film Noir

Twitch and shout: Motherless Brooklyn (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 9, 2019)

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Stanley Kubrick once stated, “I like a slow start, the start that goes under the audience’s skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.” I suspect that Edward Norton, the writer/director/star of Motherless Brooklyn, enthusiastically concurs.

Norton’s film, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s eponymous 1999 detective novel, qualifies as one such “slow starter”. At 144 minutes, it gives the audience ample time to ponder grace notes and soft tones; and (for the most part) avoids pounding you over the head with plot points and suspense hooks. Movies of that sort are hard to find these days.

I have not read the source novel; but I gather it is a complex murder mystery set in contemporary New York, with a largely internalized narrative from the perspective of its protagonist. Norton shifts the time period to the 1950s and channels most of the complexity into his performance as Lionel Essrog, a private dick afflicted by Tourette Syndrome. Naturally, he awards himself a juicy character role and tackles it with aplomb.

Lionel works as a P.I. for an agency headed by hard-boiled war vet Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Minna is not only Lionel’s boss, but his best friend and mentor. Minna is one of the few people who doesn’t (whether consciously or unconsciously) stigmatize him for his uncontrollable physical and vocal tics (Lionel’s co-workers call him “Freakshow”). Minna recognizes that certain ancillaries of Lionel’s condition- to wit, a photographic memory and an ability to laser in on minutiae are ideal attributes for a private investigator.

One day, Minna asks Lionel and another P.I. from the agency to accompany him for a meet he has with some shadowy individuals. Lionel is instructed to listen in on the conversation from a phone booth while his partner stands by in the car. Minna keeps his cards close to his vest as to what it’s all about but makes it obvious that he has the pair of them tagging along as backup in case the meeting goes south in a hurry. Long story short, the meeting goes south in a hurry, and before the P.I.s can intercede Minna ends up dead.

The mystery is afoot (if it’s a yard). Lionel navigates a crooked maze of avarice and corruption that runs through smoky Harlem jazz clubs, Brooklyn tenement slums and straight to the rotten core of The Big Apple (I think I missed my calling as a pulp writer).

Frankly, the mystery (while absorbing) takes a backseat to the character study and the noir-ish 1950s atmosphere (helped by nice work from cinematographer Dick Pope, whose credits include many Mike Leigh films as well as the 1990 cult favorite Dark City).

But Lionel is certainly an interesting study, augmented by a committed performance from Norton, who is one of the finest actors of his generation. As a director, Norton is rock solid if not particularly stylish. Also in the cast: Alec Baldwin (as a very Trumpian New York real estate developer), Bobby Cannavale, Willem Dafoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

It’s tempting to dub this an East Coast Chinatown, but it doesn’t “get under your skin” the same way. Still, Norton deserves credit for going against the grain of conventional modern Hollywood “product”, by making us lean in again and pay attention to the details.

…one more thing

So you’re not up for schlepping to the theater? Here are five vintage New York City-based noirs and neo-noirs that are well worth your while and readily available for home viewing:

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Dog Day Afternoon (available for rent from Warner Brothers On Demand) – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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Killer’s Kiss (Criterion Collection Blu-ray) – It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time.

But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (or could indicate how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as an immersive time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955 (much the same way that Jules Dassin’s 1948 documentary-style noir, The Naked City preserves the NYC milieu of the late 1940s).

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

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Sweet Smell of Success (available on TCM On Demand) – Tony Curtis gives a knockout performance in this hard-hitting 1957 drama as a smarmy press agent who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen (Lancaster’s odious, acid-tongued character was a thinly-disguised take on the reviled, Red-baiting gossip-monger Walter Winchell).

Although it was made over 60 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. James Wong Howe’s cinematography (and use of various New York City locales) is outstanding. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

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The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 (available on Hitz and Prime Video) – In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled hijackers who take control of a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character in the film down to the smallest bit part is soaking in it).

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Taxi Driver (available on Netflix) – Equal parts film noir, character study and sociopolitical commentary, this was one of the most important (if disturbing) films to emerge from the American film renaissance of the 1970s, due in no small part to the artistic trifecta of directing, writing  and acting  talents involved  (Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Robert De Niro, respectively).

De Niro plays alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, who takes a night job as a cabbie. Prowling New York City’s meanest streets, Travis kills time between fares fantasizing about methods he might use to eradicate the seedy milieu he observes night after night to jibe with his exacting world view of How Things Should Be. It’s truly unnerving to watch as it becomes more and more clear that Travis is the proverbial ticking time bomb. His eventual homicidal catharsis still has the power to shock and is not for the squeamish.

The outstanding supporting cast includes a then-teenage Jodie Foster (nominated for an Oscar), Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks. The film’s memorable score is by the late Bernard Herrmann (it was one of his final projects).

Blu-ray reissue: Detour (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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Detour – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Many consider Edgar G. Ulmer’s artfully pulpy 1945 programmer as one of the greatest no-budget “B” crime dramas ever made. This is the “one” that hardcore film noir aficionados have been praying for “someone” to properly restore, and Criterion has delivered in spades (the movie had been languishing in “public domain” for years, precipitating a seemingly infinite number of fuzzy home video iterations of varyingly horrid quality).

Clocking in at just under 70 minutes, the story follows a down-on-his-luck musician (Tom Neal) with whom fate, and circumstance have saddled with (first) a dead body, and then (worst) a hitchhiker from Hell (Ann Savage, in a wondrously demented performance). In short, he is not having a good night. Truly one of the darkest noirs of them all.

I cannot say enough about the 4K digital restoration…it is a revelation and should help the film garner a new generation of fans (I also suspect that  aspiring filmmakers can learn much about how to do more with less by studying it!).

Blu-ray reissue: The Big Clock (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Big Clock – Arrow Academy Blu-ray (Region “B”)

I hesitate to tag John Farrow’s 1948 crime drama as a “film noir”, because it contains a fair amount of levity…but enough genre experts have labelled it as such for it to qualify, I suppose. Whatever you choose to call it will not detract from the fact that it is a marvelous film, from start to finish.

The story (adapted by Jonathan Latimer from Kenneth Fearing’s novel) centers on a harried “true crime” magazine editor (Ray Milland), who is scrambling to tie up loose ends at work so he can finally split town on a long overdue vacation with his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan). However, his ever-demanding boss (Charles Laughton) obstructs his plans at the last minute…and apparently for the last time, as it prompts Milland to announce his resignation and storm out of the office.

He ends up getting blind drunk with his boss’s mistress (Rita Johnson). Later that evening, she is murdered by Laughton-who craftily proceeds to frame Milland for the deed. A cleverly constructed game of wits ensues. Fabulous supporting cast; with Elsa Lanchester a standout as a kooky artist.

The image quality is spectacular (taken from original film elements). Arrow adds a generous helping of extras, including a rare hour-long 1948 radio dramatization by the Lux Radio Theatre.

SIFF 2019: The Hitch-Hiker (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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46% of this year’s SIFF selections are by female directors, as are 56% of the 2019 competition films (ratios which should be industry-wide, not relegated to the festival circuit). As part of this emphasis, SIFF is presenting two restored gems from pioneering actor-director Ida Lupino.

This 1953 film noir is not only a tough, taut nail-biter, but one of the first “killer on the road” thrillers (a precursor to The Hitcher, Freeway, Kalifornia, etc.). Lupino co-wrote the tight script with Collier Young. They adapted from a story by Daniel Mainwearing that was based on a real-life highway killer’s spree.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play buddies taking a road trip to Mexico for some fishing. When they pick up a stranded motorist (veteran noir heavy William Talman), their trip turns into a nightmare. Essentially a chamber piece, with excellent performances from the three leads (Talman is genuinely creepy and menacing).

Blu-ray reissue: The Man Who Cheated Himself ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Man Who Cheated Himself – Flicker Alley Blu-ray

This marks the third collaboration between releasing studio Flicker Alley, the Film Noir Foundation, and UCLA Film and Television Archive in their mission to unearth and restore forgotten film noir gems from the classic noir cycle (it was preceded by Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run).

The ever-gruff Lee J. Cobb stars as a bad, bad cop (a noir staple) who gets in the middle of a kerfuffle between his girlfriend (Jane Wyatt, cast against type as a femme fatale) and her estranged husband. The incident ends badly for hubby, and love-struck Cobb scrambles a cover-up. Adherent to the Rules of Noir, the more he tries to cover it, the deeper the hole gets. Having his straight-arrow rookie homicide detective brother (John Dall) by his side working so enthusiastically to solve the case doesn’t exactly quell his anxiety.

While I wouldn’t call this 1950 effort from prolific director Felix E. Feist (perhaps best-known for his cult noir The Devil Thumbs a Ride) a classic genre entry, it’s still quite involving, the performances are solid, and it’s always noble to rescue a forgotten noir. The real star is ever-cinematic San Francisco; some of its most iconic locations are used to great effect by DP Russell Harlan (especially the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point).

Extras include a mini-documentary about the original production, a “then and now” virtual tour around contemporary San Francisco scouting out original locations for the film, and a souvenir booklet.

Blu-ray reissue: Farewell, My Lovely (***1/2) & The Big Sleep (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

https://i2.wp.com/d3uc4wuqnt61m1.cloudfront.net/images/images/000/059/837/59837.large.jpg?w=474&ssl=1Farewell, My Lovely  / The Big Sleep  – Shout! Factory Select Blu-ray

The chief reason I geeked out over this “two-fer” was Farewell My Lovely, one of a handful of films directed by renowned 1960s photographer/TV ad creator Dick Richards. The 1975 crime drama is an atmospheric remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). Robert Mitchum is at his world-weary best as detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a paroled convict (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his girlfriend, who has made herself scarce since he went to the joint. Per usual, Marlowe finds himself in a tangled web of corruption and deceit. Also featuring Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, Sylvia Miles, and the late great Harry Dean Stanton.

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The companion feature, writer-director Michael Winner’s 1978 remake of The Big Sleep (also adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel) is more of a hit-and-miss affair. Mitchum reprises his role as Marlowe; but he kind of phones it in this time out. This may be due to Winner’s decision to contemporize the story and move it to London; I suspect this threw Mitchum off his game a bit (Winner may have been inspired by Robert Altman’s 1973 re-imagining of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which featured Elliot Gould as a present-day Marlowe).

I think Farewell My Lovely works better because Richards sets the story in late 1940s L.A., which is more faithful to Chandler’s original milieu (and Mitchum’s own iconography is deeply tethered to the classic noir cycle). Still, The Big Sleep is worth a peek, with a cast that includes Sarah Miles, Richard Boone, James Stewart, Oliver Reed, and Candy Clark.

While neither of these films look to have necessarily been restored, Shout! Factory’s digital HD transfers are the highest quality versions I’ve seen on home video (and both titles have been previously difficult to find). Extras include a new interview with Sarah Miles, a brief interview with Michael Winner, and a vintage featurette on The Big Sleep.

The big heat: The 10 sweatiest film noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2018)

With the mercury continuing to soar in many parts of the country, I thought I would cobble together a selection of “hot” film noirs. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous cinema (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and happily spending hot days ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my studio apartment…but I can always dream). So here are my Top Ten (in alphabetical order)…

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Body Heat– A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist.

Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon as the (seriously-is it hot in here?) “car wash girl”. Oh… and did I mention the car wash scene? Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson.

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Dog Day Afternoon– As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low–Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air-conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

On the surface, the film plays as a straightforward police procedural; it’s engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself as more than a genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 53 year old film, it feels very contemporary).

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The Hot Spot– Considering he accumulated 100+ credits as an actor in feature films and a relatively scant 7 as a director of same over the course of a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the work he did as the former, as opposed to the latter. Still, it’s worth noting that those 7 films he directed include Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir.

Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler quickly snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.

And damn, it’s hot.

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In the Heat of the Night– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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The Night of the Hunter-Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).

Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A very disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) -A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens. An iconic noir and the blueprint for ensuing entries in the “That was good for me too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel. Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake that starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the illicit lovers was more “uncensored” …yet not as deliciously sordid.

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Touch of Evil– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated (and oft-imitated) opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (I love the way she deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

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The Wages of Fear-The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but this 1953 “existential noir” from director Henri-Georges Clouzot sits atop that list.

Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield.

It does take some time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel. The 1977 William Friedkin remake Sorcerer has its detractors, but I recommend a peek.

Run for the shadows: Top 10 Film Noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2018)

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It’s been a dark week here in Seattle. I actually mean that in a good way. Film noir expert/revivalist Eddie Muller brought his “Noir City” mini-festival to town (sponsored here by SIFF), hosting seven days of screenings at local theaters. Muller’s traveling exhibition gives audiences around the country a chance to catch films from the “classic” noir cycle on the big screen. That’s what got me thinking about my favorite genre entries.

And thinking. And thinking.

This is one of the toughest “top 10” lists I’ve tackled, because I could easily do a “top 100”. Out of the 3700 titles in my personal movie collection (I know…it’s an illness), over 800 fall in the noir/neo-noir/mystery categories. One could say I’m a little obsessed.

I had to narrow it down this way: which noirs have I re-watched the most times? That was the chief criteria behind these selections. So note going in that this is not designed to be my definitive assemblage of the most “historically important”, or “classic” noirs of all time (although several of these titles might be considered as such). These are purely personal favorites, so if this compels you to fire off a “You Philistine! I cannot believe you overlooked [insert title here]!!!” response, your indignation is duly noted beforehand.

One more note. I’m fully aware that most film scholar types generally define the “classic noir cycle” as cynical, darkly atmospheric B&W crime dramas produced between 1940 and 1959; consequently any similar entries going forward automatically get tossed into the “neo” noir bin. That said, there are some (like yours truly) who respectfully argue that the Force remains strong, at least through the mid-1970s. And so it goes. Alphabetically:

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Ace in the Hole – Billy Wilder’s 1951 film is one of the bleakest noirs ever made:

Charles Tatum: What’s that big story to get me outta here? […] I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.

Miss Deverich: Oh, Mr. Tatum. Really!

Charles Tatum: Or you, Mr. Wendell-if you’d only toss that cigar out the window. Real far…all the way to Los Alamos. And BOOM! (He chuckles) Now there would be a story.

Tatum (played to the hilt by Kirk Douglas) is a cynical big city newspaper reporter who drifts into a small New Mexico burg after burning one too many bridges with his former employers at a New York City daily. Determined to weasel his way back to the top (by any means necessary, as it turns out), he bullies his way into a gig with a local rag, where he impatiently awaits The Big Story that will rocket him back to the metropolitan beat.

He’s being sarcastic when he exhorts his co-workers in the sleepy hick town newsroom to get out there and make some news for him to capitalize on. But the irony in Wilder’s screenplay (co-written by Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for Tatum; in his attempt to purloin and manipulate the scenario of a man trapped in a cave-in into a star-making “exclusive” for himself, it’s Tatum who ultimately becomes The Big Story. Great writing, directing and acting make it a winner.

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Chinatown – There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.

Here are my top 3:

  1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water
  2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
  3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.

I’ve also learned that if you put together a great director (Polanski), a killer screenplay (by Robert Towne), two lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it off with a perfect music score (by Jerry Goldsmith), you’ll produce a film that deserves to be called a “classic”.

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle– This vastly under-appreciated 1973 crime drama/character study from director Peter Yates features one of the last truly great performances from genre icon Robert Mitchum, at his world-weary, sleepy-eyed best as an aging hood. Peter Boyle excels in a low-key performance as a low-rent hit man, as does Richard Jordan, playing a cynical and manipulative Fed. Steven Keats steals all his scenes as a scuzzy black market gun dealer. Paul Monash adapted his screenplay from the novel by George P. Higgins. A tough and lean slice of American neo-realism, enhanced by DP Victor J. Kemper’s gritty, atmospheric use of the autumnal Boston locales.

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High and Low – Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

On the surface, the film plays as a straightforward police procedural; it’s engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself as more than a genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 50 year old film, it feels quite contemporary).

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Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich directed this influential 1955 pulp noir, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s novel. Ralph Meeker is the epitome of cool as hard-boiled private detective Mike Hammer, who picks up a half-crazed (and half-naked) escapee from “the laughing house” (Cloris Leachman) one fateful evening after she flags him down on the highway. This sets off a chain of events that leads Hammer from run-ins with low-rent thugs to embroilment with a complex conspiracy involving a government scientist and a box of radioactive “whatsit” coveted by a number of interested parties.

The sometimes confounding plot takes a back seat to the film’s groundbreaking look and feel. The inventive camera angles, the expressive black and white cinematography (by Ernest Laszlo), the shocking violence, and the nihilism of the characters combine to make this quite unlike any other American film from the mid-50s.

The film is said to have had an influence on the French New Wave (you can see that link when you pair it up with Godard’s Breathless). British director Alex Cox paid homage in his 1984 cult film, Repo Man (both films include a crazed scientist driving around with a box of glowing radioactive material in the trunk), and Tarantino featured a suspiciously similar box of mysterious “whatsit” in Pulp Fiction.

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Night Moves – In Arthur Penn’s 1975 sleeper, which you could call an “existential noir”, Gene Hackman delivers one of his best performances as a world-weary P.I. with a failing marriage, who becomes enmeshed in a case involving battling ex-spouses, which soon slides into incest, smuggling and murder. Alan Sharp’s intelligent, multi-layered screenplay parallels the complexity of the P.I.’s case with ruminations on the equally byzantine mystery as to why human relationships, more often than not, almost seem engineered to fail. I think I’ve just talked myself into watching it again.

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Strangers on a Train– There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train.

Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage.

As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The  silver-tongued sociopath Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime!

Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

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Sunset Boulevard – Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination in 1950 from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…the Best Picture statuette went to All About Eve that year). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer (and legendary director in his own right) Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder coscripted with Leigh Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

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Sweet Smell of Success– Tony Curtis gives a knockout performance in this hard-hitting 1957 drama as a smarmy press agent who shamelessly sucks up to Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker, a powerful NYC entertainment columnist who can launch (or sabotage) show biz careers with a flick of his poison pen (Lancaster’s odious, acid-tongued character was a thinly-disguised take on the reviled, Red-baiting gossip-monger Walter Winchell).

Although it was made over 60 years ago, the film retains its edge and remains one of the most vicious and cynical ruminations on America’s obsession with fame and celebrity. Alexander Mackendrick directed, and the sharp Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay veritably drips with venom. James Wong Howe’s cinematography is outstanding. Lots of quotable lines; Barry Levinson paid homage in his 1982 film Diner, with a character who is obsessed with the film and drops in and out of scenes, incessantly quoting the dialogue.

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Touch of Evil – Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated (and oft-imitated) opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and stands as one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (who deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

Blu-ray reissue: Mickey One ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Mickey One – Indicator Limited Edition Blu-ray

Arthur Penn’s 1965 existential film noir stars Warren Beatty as a standup comic who is on the run from the mob. The ultimate intent of this pursuit is never made 100% clear (is it a “hit”, or just a debt collection?), but one thing is certain: viewers will find themselves becoming as unsettled as the twitchy, paranoid protagonist. It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare, with echoes of Godard’s Breathless. A true rarity-an American art film, photographed in expressive, moody chiaroscuro by DP Ghislain Cloquet (who also did the cinematography for Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar and Woody Allen’s Love and Death). Nice transfer. Extras include a 40-page booklet and a new interview with Penn’s son Matthew.

Blu-ray reissue: They Live By Night ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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They Live By Night – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

This 1949 film noir/progenitor of the “lovers on the lam” genre marked the directing debut for the great Nicholas Ray. Adapted by Ray and Charles Schnee from Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (the same source novel that inspired Robert Altman’s eponymous 1974 film), this Depression-era tale concerns the unexpected and intense mutual attraction that sparks between a young escaped convict (Farley Granger) and a sheltered young woman (Cathy O’Donnell). The young lovers’ primal drive to meaningfully connect with someone who truly “gets” them clouds the illogic of expecting to play house when one of them is a wanted fugitive.

With its themes of young outcasts, adolescent confusion, and doomed love, the film presages Ray’s 1955 social drama Rebel Without a Cause more so than it does his later noirs like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground,  Moody, atmospheric and surprisingly sensual for its time (it doesn’t hurt that Granger and O’Donnell are so beautiful). Criterion’s 2K restoration lends depth to the shadows and light of George E. Diskant’s cinematography. Extras include commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.