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.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

"Born to Kill"

Note: I'm doing something different this time.  There's no plot mentions of any kind and it's mostly gut impressions. Shaking things up as it were.
Born to Kill is a 1947 film released under RKO pictures.  It's not a terribly classy film, possibly the least classy noir I've seen to date.  When characters are straight out asking for beer and not, say, whiskeys and sodas, you know you're in trouble.  But it does have plenty of fedoras, and women with improbable hairstyles.

It stars Lawrence Tierney (of "Reservoir Dogs" fame), Clair Trevor (from "Key Largo" and "Murder, My Sweet"), and Walter Slezak, but none of their performances are especially memorable.  Far more memorable is Elisha Cook Jr. (from the  Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Star Trek) who, although his performance is slightly undermined by sleaziness, has a sort of manipulative charm.  It's hard not to cheer for these characters who are clearly smarter than those they share the screen with.  Another memorable performance is Esther Howard's alcoholic old lady, who makes up for in vim and vigor that she lacks in class.

The fight scenes especially seemed pretty strange, and kind of take away from the grim and gritty tone with their bizarre poses.  There are some surreal facial expressions as characters seem unsure what to do.  There are also some pretty sloppy make-outs.

The dialogue (at its best) is what lends the movie its shine.  It's blunt and forceful, like an oncoming train. Characters relentlessly hit on each other.  There's some advice about dames which isn't especially misogynistic and struck me as relevant to my own life.  There's also a quite profound bit of wisdom delivered in a cafe.  And there's a plot-relevant biblical quote which seems a little too convenient to be real, but works anyways.  Unfortunately, sometimes characters nervously babble and make unecessary statements.  But overall I would say it's pretty sharp, if low-brow.

Ultimately this movie fails due to a lack of class in other areas.  Characters literally spit at each other, for example.  This lack of class hurts the movie when it tries to be literary and intellectual. (Walter Slezak's character is fond of literary allusions, but he isn't exempt from the no-class rule).

I think this film is ultimately just kind of shady.  Sure, a lot of noirs are, but I think the best noirs keep a certain classiness that this movie fails to attain (if it was even trying.)

Best Line: "As you grow older you'll discover that life is very much like coffee.  The aroma is always better than the actuality", delivered pleasantly by Walter Slezak.

Friday, 30 May 2014

"The Killers"

Today's film is the "1946" feature "The Killers". It's directed by Robert Siodmack, written by John Huston and Richard Brooks, based on the story by Ernest Hemingway (I don't how how faithful it is as I haven't read the book).  It stars Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardener, Edmond O' Brien and Sam Levine.  As far as I can tell, it's a film about how the past catches up to us, even if we thought we thought we had established new beginnings.  So let's jump into this somber tale.

Burt Lancaster (of later "The Sweet Smell of Success" fame) stars in his film debut as "The Swede", given the names of Pete Lund and later, Ole Andreson.  He is only in one scene before he is gunned down by two  memorable hitmen (after being shown to be very accepting of his fate).  His backstory is then shown through a series of flashbacks, as his murder is investigated. In these scenes, Lancaster has undeniable presence, but is stil a bit more humble then he is in later iconic roles, despite his size.  He has a quick temper though, and is quick to resort to violence, and I have to say his punches look pretty painful.

The femme fatale of this piece is Kitty Collins, played by Ava Gardener. Like many noir femmes, she's a singer.  She's a standard yet well-executed femme; deception and allurement are her stock in trade. Gardener brings a dark kind of beauty to the role; you believe it when men fall over themselves to do time for her  or be backstabbed by her.  I'd even say she's a strong female character, though she posesses dubious morality; she's willing to tell even gangsters to step off.
Edmund O'Brien plays insurance investigator Jim Riordan.  Fans of such films as "Double Indemnity" know about the role of insurance in noir; it's serious business.  He's determined to  solving the case despite his higher-ups telling him to let it go. (The motivation behind this seems to be they wish he would focus his efforts on something else.)  His investigation is the framing device for the narrative: he pieces the story together from the stories of characters from Andreson's past. He's not an especially memorable character, but works as the blank slate detective who puts the pieces together.

This film is a character piece, not just of Andreson and those immediately related to him, but other characters too.  These include the hitmen that gun down Andreson, who are very distinct; they are sinister but prone to running their mouth a bit.  Also important to the story is Big Jim Colfax, the crime boss that Andreson runs with in his past.  He plans out possibly the best idea for a heist that I've ever seen, and I am not being superlative (okay, I am, but I mean it.)  

The main theme of this film, I'd say is new beginnings, and how unstable they inherently are.  If you've seen "Out of the Past", you'd know that some film noirs love this trope.  By the time the events of the beginning occur Kitty Collins has married a respectable husband and has settled into a respectable   life, but the past is always there, waiting to catch up with her.  Big Jim Colfax has a similar situation: he has gone into legitimate business, but ultimately suffers the fallout from his former life.  This film is another in the noir pantheon that espouses cynicism when it comes to the "fresh start" concept. There are no clean breaks, not in this life.

Random Thoughts:  The film is fond of long, uninterrupted shots, most noticeable in the heist scene, but also in some dialogue scenes too.

Best Line: "Don't ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell," said sternly by Sam Levene (who also appeared in "The Sweet Smell of Success").

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

"Ministry of Fear"

Today's film is "Ministry of Fear", released 1944.  It's directed by Fritz Lang, director of such films as "M" and "Metropolis", written by Seton I Miller and based on a book by Graham Greene.  It's a paranoid piece where you feel like you can't trust anybody, so, very noir.

Ray Milland stars as Stephen Neale, a releasee from the Asylum who goes to  an unassuming fair put on in the name of charity.  He spends the entrance fee of a shilling and goes into the tent of the fortune teller Mrs. Bellane, who tells him what he should guess to win the cake of "how much does this cake weigh" fame.  The guess is right, and he takes home the cake, or at least tries to- a blind guy knocks him out and steals the cake on the train.   He runs off and is promptly exploded by a bomb (sweet bomb effects!), leaving Neale with more questions than answers.

Helping to get to the bottom of this mystery is Carla and Will Hilfie, the people who run the charity, played by Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond.  Carla is the film's love interest and the main femme of the film, and fulfills the wide-eyed, perpetually confused quota.   As the film progresses she coaxes Neale's story out of him and is generally very helpful and supportive.  Her brother is very earnest with nary a hair out of place, and is similarly helpful and inquisitive as the two discover their charity may be a front for a Nazi spy ring.

The femme fatale of the film is Mrs. Bellane, played by Hilary Brooke.  She's an interesting character; she is first introduced as an old fortune teller before she turns out to be a beautiful young dame.  I suppose in the beginning she's wearing make-up (I'm really not sure what's going on)?  At any rate, she hosts a spooky seance that heightens and explores the sense of mystery in the film.

This movie has an interesting tone.  It's mostly paranoid and nervy but there are some comic elements, such as blustery private detective George Rennit, played by Erskine Sanford, who risks alienating clients with his quick temper.  Ultimately, since the movie only breaks the tension  only once or twice it's hard to complain about it, though one wonders about the effect the film would have on your psyche without such moments to splinter the mood.

I give the film about an average rating.  It's good, but (and I admit I've never read the novel) I can't help but wonder if it would have more of an impact on the viewer's soul if it more closely followed the plot of the book.  I suppose Metropolis is Fritz Lang's masterwork, and this film doesn't upset that, but it's an interesting film nonetheless.

Best Line:  "It's the way they work all around you, knowing about everybody, everything, where to find you," spoken frightenedly by Marjorie Reynolds.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

"Nora Prentiss"

Today's feature is "Nora Prentiss", directed by Vincent Sherman, written by Paul Webster and Jack Sobell, and starring Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith.  It's the tale of a respectable nuclear family patriarch who falls for a younger, hard-boiled dame.  As his infatuation grows, he makes decisions that are more and more suspect considering his position.  So let's meet our characters...

Dr. Richard Talbot, top-level doctor and loving father to his somewhat mentally challenged children.  (His son, for example, is fond of dumbly repeating things people say).  The opening shot of his character shows him adjusting his appearance in the mirror, brushing off his suit jacket.  It's instant characterization; he likes everything to be neat and orderly. In the next shot, we see his family sitting down at the table to eat, his daughter breezing in with some gratuitous, swelling music (which frankly I don't think the character is important enough for).  The shot of them all together, bickering in a non-dysfunctional manner, shows that he has achieved what everyone should aim for: a nice family, a nice house and a nice profession.

Everything starts to change when he meets Nora Prentiss.  Of course, she's a nightclub singer (this is the only profession for attractive females in noir world).  It doesn't take long before he begins to fall for the smoking singer routine.  Nora is kind of cynical ("Dreams only last so long.  Then you get hungry.") and seems to have more of a grasp on how the real world works than Talbot.  As Talbot falls for her charms she seems perpetually ready to back out (though she is ostensibly still in love); pointing out when Talbot is making decisions that invite disaster.  And boy, does he make a lot of those.

Other characters include Phil Dinardo, the nightclub owner whom Talbot begins to see as a romantic rival, and Mr. Bailey, the doomed patient.  These characters aren't really characterized much, but they're still essential cogs in the plot machine, if you'll pardon the dehumanizing metaphor.

The acting in this film does a pretty good job of selling the characters.  Kent Smith plays a believably uptight Talbot, while Ann Sheridan as Prentiss is attractive enough (except when she's wearing those square shouldered dresses that were popular at the time).  The two have a sort of chemistry together; it's not the "these two are passionately in inflammatory love kind" but the "maybe this is a bad idea" kind which works with the themes the film is trying to convey.  

In this film, being on time and having a strict schedule is associated with keeping it together.  The daughter's late arrival to the breakfast table early in the film prompts a speech from Talbot's wife on the merits of being punctual, stating how in the real world people need to be on time for things.  It took me a second viewing to notice how this foreshadows/sets up the rest of the film.  In their first meeting Prentiss remarks to Richard how she sets her clock by him.  He's got an organized life.  It's only when he starts to deviate from his schedule (Prentiss points this out herself) on the excuse that he can do things at some other time, that things start to go wrong, and the life he has put together begins to fall apart.

Random Observation: I think they re-used the flaming car going off a cliff effect from Sudden Fear, possibly reversed.

Best Line: "It's a big city, and there's nobody to know if you're alive or dead.  And very few people to care."  Delivered ominously by John Ridgely, and it's a nice bit of foreshadowing too.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

"The Bribe"

"The Bribe", today's feature,  is a 1949 film directed by Robert Z. Leonard, written by Marguerite Roberts (based on a short story by Fredrick Nebel), and stars Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Charles Laughton (there are other actors in important roles, but these three give the most memorable performances).  It's set in Central America, and follows the adventures of the federal agent known only as Rigby, as he attempts to shut down a ring of airplane engine smugglers or something (I was never too clear on the details).  The framework is arguably unimportant; what is important is the stage it sets for various characters and complications.

 Rigby is introduced, verbatim, as a "honest cop."  His integrity is beyond question, which makes him the perfect choice to go down to Central America and stop airplane engine fraud (you wouldn't download an airplane engine, etc). Indeed, he is quickly approached with offers to make some quick cash by looking the other way.  He proves his honesty by shooting these down, but in noirs everyone has a price, if not necessarily an amount you can measure in dollars, and Rigby is about to find this out...

Making the offers is J.J. Beeler, and I have to say his is just an ingenious performance of an incredibly strong character.   Even before his official introduction, we see him lurking in the background of key scenes. He's been authorized to make financial transactions on behalf of his shady employers, but when that doesn't work he becomes an Iago figure, manipulating characters and playing them off each other.  Despite - or perhaps because of- his unruly hair and sweaty mannerisms, he seems more intelligent than any of the other characters in the film, possessing a dignity even frequent references by Rigby to his "pie-shaped" figure can't rob him of.  Laughton delivers his lines with Hitchockian emphasis, bringing some gravitas to the whole affair that makes the film instantly richer with every plot complication he introduces.

The femme love interest of the film is named Elizabeth Hintten, and is played by Ava Gardner.  She is, like so many other female characters in noirs, a singer at a local nightclub, but she is also tied up in the airplane engine racket; her husband, an alcoholic played by John Hodiak, is a key man in the scheme.  She is mostly a victim, at least according to my interpretation; her ill-thought out marriage has as its consequence a whole mess of complications, legal or otherwise.  If her husband goes down, she might go down too, much to Rigby's chagrin.

The film is relies on characters that I haven't talked about to get the plot going.  Emilio Gomez, for example, is a local boy who helps get Rigby on the tail of big boss Harwood.  However, I have to admit, characters such as these aren't excessively characterized: Emilio the innocent, the sinister Harwood.  What's most interesting about the film is how those caught in the middle, the J.J.'s, the Elizabeths, scheme and try to stay afloat in the wake of the chess game played between law and crime.

The film is about integrity, really, and about temptation, the kinds of temptation that aren't easily scorned because they're so material, but rather cut deeper, into our hearts and souls.  People's lives are used as poker chips in the hands of skilled players who have no qualms in playing them against each other.  This film is for those who think they're above it, that think nobody can touch them.  Everyone has a price, and everyone can be played.

So I'm gonna do something different.  I'm gonna dispense with the recommendation or whatever, as I invariably am like "yeah, see this."  Instead, I'm going to leave it to you, the hypothetical reader, to make the choice based on the above.  I'll also akwardly say again that Laughton's performance is really top notch stuff.

Best line: "Everybody grafts nowadays.  That's the way people operate," delivered cynically by Laughton.