Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The End

So basically, since like no one is reading these, I wanted to do it until it stopped being fun. I tried to experiment a bit, but there's only so much you can do with some of these movies.  In the end I was reviewing movies that, though I tried to say some nice things, didn't seem all that great, and I'm sure it bled through into the reviews that I wasn't having that much fun. I never wanted this to be a chore; Noir should never be a chore. That may sound like I'm blaming the movies, but the fault is mostly with me; I went from not really knowing what I was doing to formulaic, and when I tried to experiment it didn't really work.  So I think "The Glass Key" is a good note to go out on.  We'll chalk this one down to a kid wanting to express his love for a genre, and let it become an artifact of our critically saturated digital age; my only hope is that it was interesting to some people, somewhere.

I'll leave my top picks here, in the hope that this project can be useful to someone. Most of them are not very obscure but oh well.
-The Killing (see this if you haven't, its awesome)
-The Sweet Smell of Success
-The Big Combo
-The Glass Key

I might update again, but for now it definitely won't be a regular thing.  Shoutout to anyone who read this (theoretically at least a couple of my friends are, you guys rock).  Later!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

"The Glass Key"

This time, I decided to take a break from my usual b-movie fare and treat myself to something a little higher level.  This is "The Glass Key", the 1942 feature based on a Dashiell Hammet novel and starring Alan Ladd (!), Veronica Lake (!), and Brian Donlevy. 
Alan Ladd (later to appear in the excellent feature "The Blue Dahlia") plays Ned Beaumont, the right hand man of Paul Madvig (played by Brian Donlevy), head of the Voters' League, in a role that seems to prefigure the relation ship between the two main characters in "The Sweet Smell of Success."  Surrounding Madvig is a memorable cast of characters, including his intended, Janet Henry (played by Veronica Lake, who would also appear in "The Blue Dahlia"). When Janet's brother turns up dead, Madvig enlists Ned to thwart the investigation so that it doesn't get in the way of his political dealings with Janet's father. But Ned is a bit of a sleuth himself, and soon begins to put some pieces together.

So already we have a pretty interesting plot, and it's fleshed out with three vital elements.  The first is the mystery. It's a basic idea, the concept of wanting to know who did it, but it's easy to mess up.  This film keeps you guessing because everyone has a motive, ranging from obvious to murky.

The second is the characters. I've mentioned the principal ones, and they're all unique and memorable. Alan Ladd brings that combination of believable toughness and cleverness which has him waiting for other characters to catch up, Veronica Lake is the femme who's always looks like she's on top, and Brian Donlevy is more than convincing as a blustery man who makes questionable choices.  The two antagonists in the film (besides the forces of darkness and justice) are Nick Varna (played by Joseph Calleia) and his henchman, Jeff (played by William Bendix, who would also later appear in "The Blue Dahlia"). Of the two, Jeff is the more memorable, not through any fault of Calleia, but because the role calls him to be, and Bendix has the acting skills to pull of the complex character.

The third element is way scenes are constructed. Every scene has a point, a reason for being there, whether it’s a slow-burn of tension, character moments that destroy relationships, or an all-out explosion of violence. The scenes are all well developed and allowed to play out naturally; given room to breathe so to speak. (An example is the showdown between Ned and Jeff, the majority of which is taken up by Jeff's sadistic threats.)
I also wanted to note the accuracy of the film. Now, I'm not an expert on 30's fashion, but its interesting that all the characters look like they stepped off the cover of my copy of the book.  They have that mix of slickness and dapperness (the handkerchief in the suit pocket being my favourite touch).

So yeah, I really liked this film. It's definitely worth a watch, not in the sense that I usually say some b-movie is a decent effort, but in the "this is actually pretty good even if you're not a noir junkie" sense.
Best line: "If you must be a nitwit, don't go around with a microphone," delivered sternly by Alan Ladd.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

"Night Editor"

Today's film is the 1946 feature "Night Editor." This film has an interesting history, which I will shamelessly steal from IMDB:
"'Night Editor' was based on the already existing radio program in which a newspaper editor would recount the 'inside story' of some bit newspaper story, and later became a television series."

It stars William Gargan, Janis Carter, and Jeff Donnell, and was written by Scott Littleton and Harold Jacob Smith.  If you're like me, you don't recognize any of these names.
They do a pretty good job, though.  The premise of the movie is this.  A bunch of newspapermen cluster around a card table, and begin to tell stories.  This is the framing device for the film's main narrative, which concerns a cop conducting an affair.  While out with his dame, he witnesses a murder.  He knows who did it, but can't say anything, or else his idyllic family life will be destroyed.

The cop, William Gargan, is convincing as a man conscious of the precarious nature of his existence but wanting to see justice done. The dame, played by Janis Carter, is frosty in her portrayal of a woman lacking empathy and thinking only of her own position.  I have no complaints about these performances.

In fact, the only thing I can really complain about is a spoiler, so I won't.  Suffice it to say this narrative isn't perfectly plotted out from start to finish (or I am a nitpicking loser.)

But that doesn't really matter next to what the film gets right.  It starts with the flawed, doomed protagonist idea and hits pretty much every noir note.  It's all here; the class commentary, the fast paced conversations loaded with in-jokes, even the musings of characters seemingly unrelated to the narrative at hand.  The film even dips into 40s Americana at some points, with precocious kids who are as "gee whiz!" as humanly possible.  Of course, sometimes the details aren't enough, but I think this film successfully attains a noir feel.

So yeah, this is a short review/article/whatever, but I think this film is pretty solid, and I needed it after some other efforts (better movies are usually shorter reviews, because I stop taking notes and get distracted by the film).  It's better than its shaky origins might lead you to believe.  This film shows that noir is intrinsically a pretty sweet genre; you only make a bad film when you mess it up.

Monday, 1 September 2014

"Highway Dragnet"

Today's film is "Highway Dragnet", the 1946 picture directed by Nathan Juran and written by Herb Meadow and Jerome Odlum, based on a story by U.S. Anderson and Roger Corman. This movie is not to be confused with the television series "Dragnet" or the film based on it.  It is also worth noting that Anderson has the most patriotic name ever.

The film stars Richard Conte (who would later appear in "The Godfather") as Jim Henry, a Korean War vet who enjoys going to bars and ticking off dames.  He meets a former model,  and after ticking her off and having the whole bar be witness to a scene of her yelling at him, she later turns up dead. As he was the last one seen with her, he becomes the number one suspect.  As he tries to get out of dodge, an organized and somewhat effective police force try to shut down his escape route.

The film opens with cheerful music, which basically tells you something about the nature of the story, that its cheerful mood will be reflected in the ending.  This is for audiences who are comforted by a happy ending.  I'm not sure how much I approve of this.  Yes, there has to be some sort of resolution, but I'm not generally a fan of when things wrap up so neatly.  I prefer a more noir, darker tone in my endings, to be totally honest.

But that's being kind of unfair to this film.  There are some pretty effective moments as Jim fashions his escape.  He meets up with another model named Susan Willis (played by Wanda Hendrix) and her photographer Mrs. Cummings (played by Joan Bennet), and there are some tense scenes as the two begin to suspect that Jim is the target of all the police they keep running into.  There is a nice paranoid tone set here, and it drives all the characters to take progressively proactive and malignant actions.

With situations like these, beauty and its offshoots such as photography modeling unfold as a prominent theme in the movie.  The movie asks questions about the precarious nature of beauty.  The former model Jim meets in the films beginning has a short temper, and her fuse is lit by remarks such as "wow, you were so beautiful once." Meanwhile, Susan is seen checking her proportions out in a mirror, depicted by a lingering shot of her gams, and noting somewhat clinically that she still "has it."

I kind of have to comment on the nature of the police force.  First of all, it's hard to take them seriously when their lieutenant is named "White Eagle" and sports a ten gallon hat or whatever it's called, some sort of cowboy hat.  This kind of leads to the most, I think, disappointing feature of the film.  I really like the idea of a solitary man being pitted against an omnipresent police force supported by numbers and knowledge, and while it's true they are a constant threat, they are in no way all-seeing and all-knowing.  Unsuspecting police officers run into Jim all the time and he pretty much always leaves without raising an eyebrow.  And I kind of have to mention their hilariously ineffective roadblock, in which Jim plows through a sign that says "Roadblock" without decreasing speed one iota.

Another criticism I have is with the nature of the love story that takes place in this film.  Susan has known Jim for all of a day, I think, and still falls deeply in love with him, despite his status as a murder suspect.  I guess girls just like dangerous guys?  It kind of seems weird to me.

One thing I do like is that this pretty obviously takes place in a noir universe. The characters are all hard-boiled, well acquainted with the concept of murder, and they never flinch when a gat is pointed at them. Unfortunately, this is undermined by the nature of the story, that suggests this is a world where crimes are always solved with the minimum loss of human life.

So this film has some problems, but is ultimately supported by its paranoiac elements and its exploration of the beauty concept. I kind of wish the police were scarier though, because the movie's tension theoretically resides in the effectiveness of the titular "dragnet".

Random Thought: Jim gives as an alias "Jim Johnson" which I think is just about the worst fake name ever. (For reference, the name I would give in such a situation would be "Marky Edwards.")

Best Line:  "When a mortar hits, you don't need to look twice to tell it's gone off.  I think falling in love is like that," delievered pensively by Richard Conte.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

"The Big Sleep"

Lauren Bacall has just passed on, so I rewatched The Big Sleep for those special feels. I'm not gonna say much about it, because it's been discussed and analysed to death- with good reason. If you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself, but you already knew that.
The plot is confusing and leaves the viewer with many questions that go unsolved.  What bugs me the most, I think, is this: why does the General grow orchids if he hates them so much?

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

"The Killer that Stalked New York"

Today's film is the 1950 film with the Horror B-Movie title of "The Killer That Stalked New York". It's directed by Earl McEvoy, with a screenplay by Harry Essex (who wrote such films as "The Creature from the Black Lagoon) adapting an article by Milton Lehman.  It stars Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, and William Bishop.

A basic summary of the film is in order I suppose.  Evelyn Keyes plays Sheila Bennet, a diamond smuggler with some hot merchandise who is unknowingly carrying a strain of smallpox.  She's doing this for her husband, Charles Korvin as Matt Krane.  Meanwhile, a handsome doctor played by William Bishop works to stop the spread of the deadly plague.

I want to deal with the most obvious interpretation of the film.  If you look at it from a feminist perspective, or a freudian perspective, you can argue that the woman wandering around spreading disease represents either the patriarchal fear/hatred of women or a fear of sexually transmitted disease spread by women.  This is interesting and I don't think it's entirely without merit, however it is undermined by how the main acts of immorality are perpretrated by a male character.  Matt sleeps around and betrays people and seems only motivated by his own self-interest, manifested in a Scrooge McDuckian love of money.  (He even attempts to rape someone and it's not played for anything but serious drama). I think if the people that produced this film truly hated women, they'd have gone with the more obvious femme fatale route.  This isn't to say that she isn't dangerous - she is. But she's not exactly evil, especially compared to some other noir femmes. Whether those femmes represent a fear of the female presence is up for debate.

Mostly, I let the femme fatale role slide because it's a cliche.  I know that's a dumb reason to let something go.  But cliches are powerful; if used enough, they become archetypes and resonate with the human consciousness, and the human experience.  In this way I see the femme fatale role not as a malevolent force, but maybe as an open window into the human psyche.  Sure, the room may be ugly, but would it be better if we ignored it, or should we maybe tidy up a little?  So I basically respect the femme role for two reasons: you have to respect archetypes, and they clue us in to some stuff that's going on in the cultural consciousness.

This film has a beautiful score. During calm scenes it is eerie, with carefully placed arrangements of piano and other instruments, spooky, as if this movie were actually about a scary slasher and not a subversion of the usual horror routine.  Then when things start to get exciting, the music rises with excitement, like many other film scores I suppose, but with a distinctive horror bent.

This film offers us a window into societal mores of the time.  In one scene, the main character is approached by a small girl.  I winced as I saw her pick the girl up and place her on her lap before continuing the conversation.  Not to state the obvious but you couldn't do that sort of thing nowadays.  Heck, the narrator even takes the time to establish new york as a city where millions of people cheerfully work together to solve problems.  I've heard differing descriptions from some of my friends.

The film plays with cheerful patriotic Americana imagery.  When the crisis starts to become, well, a crisis, the mayor is pulled from umpire duty of several rambunctious scamps playing baseball. This is, the film is saying, what is at stake as the disease spreads throughout the city.  Our children, playing baseball.

This film also seems to anticipate the vaccine argument that is happening today.  I'll be honest; I'm not sure what the arguments against vaccines are today.  They seem like a pretty good deal to me.  But you still get stuff on social media about how vaccines are evil, etcetera.  In the film, the argument against the vaccine for the disease that is killing people by the truckload is that even a small amount of the disease is bad, even if it protects against future infection.  The movie doesn't spend much time on this viewpoint; eventually, people get the vaccine.  So maybe this film was made by Big Vaccine or whatever.

There's a lot of other stuff to talk about, but I don't want to spoil this film. It's kind of corny, but there's a decent story that leads up to a pretty exciting climax.

Best line: The plague is described as "a killer out of the past, loose among eight million people," vocalized melodramatically by Ludwig Donath.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

"Three Strangers"

"Three Strangers" is a 1946 film released by Warner Brothers.  It stars Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald.  It was directed by Jean Negulesco from a script by -get this- John Huston and Howard Koch.

The first thing I will mention is that this film is in colour- the first such movie I've written about here.  And a lot stands out- including eye-popping femme outfits.  (I assume that this is intended to get the same effect that ostentatiously designed outfits usually achieve for femmes.  Honestly, sparkly (and weird) dame dresses are possibly my least favourite thing about the noir aesthetic.)

The premise of the movie is simple.  Three characters are brought together- the titular "Three Strangers"- and they make a bet on a horse race.  They could all use the money, for various reasons.  They then return to their various lives, which are full of drama and heartbreak, and we see how those lives play out.

Peter Lorre's Johnny West is one of the three strangers and arguably the one the film features most heavily. He's not the sort of creepy weirdo he is in films like the Maltese Falcon.  Instead, though he has his trademark manner, he seems to be noble hearted, a victim to his chosen vice of alcohol perhaps, but full of goodness in a world that seems to be ruled by cold hard cash and those that have enough of it.  He's easily my favourite character, always ready with a quip or wise proverb.

Geraldine Fitzgerald's Crystal Shackleford is almost Shakespearian in the forces that are arrayed against her and the ways she tries to deal with them.  I would call her the protagonist, as it is her actions that kickstart the plot.

Sydney Greenstreet's character, Jerome Arbutny, is the third stranger.  Like in the Maltese Falcon, he plays a rich old fat guy.  At first, he wants the money so he can be a respected barrister, soon complications develop.  His civilized appearance belies the hypocrisy and greed that is at the heart of his character.

The setting is London in 1938, which looks different from how I might have pictured the thirties. There are neon signs all over this metropolis, for starters. The movie opens on bustling crowds, and Crystal stands out from them immediately in her daring pink scarf, soon revealing a daring pink outfit.  In fact, the femmes of this film all wear boldly coloured outfits, as I talked about above.

The movie has elements of mysticism.  When the characters make a wish on the mysterious idol, there are eerie winds and other spooky happenings that make the initially skeptical characters take the supernatural elements seriously.  These mystical elements are enhanced by the cuts between scenes, which are foggy dissolves.

Supporting characters are memorable.  Peter Lorre's character is part of a criminal gang, which includes his love interest, the sort of puppydog whose been kicked around a few times, and a knife thrower who exudes the menace of an underclass man prone to violence. (He stands in sharp contrast to the "civilized" air that so many of the characters carry.) Crystal's husband is a smug gentleman trying to leave old paramours by the wayside. And the object of Jerome Arbutny's affections, lady Rhea Belladon, is very amusing.

I complained about a lack of classiness in the film "Born to Kill", and I think that was a little naive after seeing this film.  Sure, characters seem cooler when drinking whiskeys and sodas.  But the characters in positions of wealth and status are for the most part far more reprehensible than the less "civilized" in this film.  It's an important reminder that "civilization" can just be a veneer; cliche as it sounds, what matters is your soul.

This movie deals with two interrelated themes: fate and superstition.  If the gods are real, if their powers extend beyond the reasonable, the rational, the comprehensible, then they surely determine our fates- or so one would imagine. This film explores whether human freedom is possible in an incomprehensible universe.

Best Line: "We are but strangers on this moving globe. It's not for us to tarry long," delivered educationally by Peter Lorre.