Monday, 31 March 2014

"The Killing"

Today's film is a 1956 film entitled "The Killing", directed by Stanley Kubrick who also wrote the screenplay.  I definitely don't need to list Kubrick's other accomplishments, but I also had no clue he was directing films this early. The film has a large cast, so for now I'll just say that it stars Sterling Hayden, and I'll run down the actors as I run down the characters.  Of course I am a film plebeian, and saw Reservoir Dogs before this, and it's obvious that this film was a heavy influence.

The plot of the movie goes something like this.  A gang of desperate characters hoping for a big payoff team up to plan one of the most ambitious heists in history; over two million dollars in cash from a racetrack.  Each member of the gang has their own role to play, and I'll try to avoid spoilers as I run through the cast of characters.  This film is amazing for me because of how it juggles so many characters while having them all be memorable.

Johnny Clay comes closest to being "the main character."  He's played by Sterling Hayden, who would go on to have many memorable roles, but it's worth pointing out that he would go on to play Roger Wade in the 1973 adaptation of "The Long Goodbye" (which is worth checking out, even though it makes some "interesting" decisions and is technically neo-noir).  Johnny Clay is fresh off a five year stint in the big house and decides this time he's going to aim really high before settling down with his girlfriend Fay, played by Collen Gray.  He is the gang member whose job is to commit the actual robbery.

His mentor figure is Marvin Unger, nicknamed "Marv" who is played by Jay C. Flippen.  Jay does a good job of communicating tenderness and affection to Johnny Clay, becoming something of a father figure.  His job is to provide the money necessary for various expenses in the plan.

George Peatty, played by Elisha Cook Jr., is a window teller whose job it is to let Johnny into the back room.  His wife, Sherry, played by Marie Windsor, is a cold, calculating capitalist, who sees an opportunity to take advantage of her browbeaten husband, with the help of her lover, Val Cannon, played by Vince Edwards.  The contrast between timid George and confident Val is as severe as the contrast between night and day.

Ted de Corsia plays Randy Kennan, a corrupt policeman, and I can't really go into much detail on his role without spoiling the film.  But it should be noted that he's shrewd, with a knack for figuring out angles.

Joe Sawyer plays Mike O'Reilly, who ultimately is the most sympathetic character.  He's a bartender at the racetrack, and needs the money to help care for his dying wife, played by Dorothy Adams.  He uses his inside position to help the robbery go more smoothly.

Finally we have the two hired guns, who are actually some of the more interesting characters of the story. One is a russian wrestler named Maurice Oboukhoff, played by Kolaw Kwariani.  He's extremely intelligent, as all he does in his spare time is beat people at chess.  He takes the job of starting a bar fight to distract racetrack security because he lacks purpose and direction in his life.  The other goon is Nikki Arrane, played by Timothy Carey, whose job is to distract everyone by shooting prizewinning horse Red Lightning.  He has a really cool accent and calls anyone older than him "Pops".

There are two important themes in this film.  One, of course, is capitalism.  The gangsters run the gamut of desire, some simply wanting a quick payoff while others need it to help loved ones.  The other theme is time; the story is told somewhat non-linearly as it runs through the various actions of the gangsters.  The exact time each scene takes place is narrated for us, and the characters carefully measure out time in order to make sure that the plan goes without a hitch.

I like this film a lot, so much that I wish I hadn't given such enthusiastic recommendations to some of the other films I covered. It's basically a noir "Reservoir Dogs", so if you liked that you'll like this.  I think the only difference really is that it tries to characterize everyone and largely succeeds.  There are a lot of characters in this one to keep track of, but it's worth it.

Best line: "You have a dollar sign where your heart should be," delivered coldly by Johnny Clay to Sherry Peatty.  Capitalism, y'all.

Monday, 24 March 2014

"The Big Combo"

Today's film is "The Big Combo", 1955.  I know, I'll get to the more obscure films soon.  This film was directed by Joseph Lewis, and the only thing he's directed that I've even heard of is a couple episodes of "Gunsmoke", and I've only heard of that because I've seen commercials for it in old Twilight Zone episodes.  Please forgive my massive ignorance.  It stars Richard Conte, who would later be in The Godfather, Jean Wallace, whose been in a bunch of stuff I haven't seen, and Cornel Wilde, whose work I am similarly unacquainted with.  So enough of this terrible introduction and onto the review.

The plot of the film concerns a detective with a hard boiled name, Leonard Diamond, who is obsessed putting away a crime kingpin with a name out of a Paul Auster novel, Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown doesn't keep records, which makes him hard to pin down, but there are some flaws in his operation, such as a girlfriend who is steadily beginning to hate him.

Cornel Wilde was really just the perfect choice to play the smug Mr. Brown.  He always has this look on his face that I can't really articulate.  The best I can do is that it's a certainty that everything will always turn out all right for him.  It's his performance, and not so much Conte's, that makes you root for Diamond.  In fact, it's his strength as a character that I feel makes the whole film come together, as all the other characters are pretty much defined in relation to him.  His evil is established quickly- a short mention of desperate gamblers murdering their bookie- and then his presence takes over.  You don't need to know what he did.  You just want him taken down.

This is apparent from the opening scene, as the introduction of film's main femme, Brown's girlfriend Susan Lowelle shows.  She is depicted running away from Brown and his goons, much as she begins to emotionally run from Brown throughout the film. It's the kind of attention to detail that is a hallmark of the film.  Similarly, Diamond's whole arc is his pursuit of Brown, with an obsession that borders on troubling.

This review would be remiss if I didn't mention Brown's three henchmen, Joe McClure, Fanto and Mingo.  Each one brims with personality.  Joe McClure , played by Brian Donlevy, is the senior of the three, older even than Brown.  Does he harbour feelings of resentment for his boss?  And Fante and Mingo, played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman, are Brown's go to one-two punch of lethality.
The film plays some noir tropes straight and avoids others.  There is jazz, but it is upbeat rather than mournful.  There is the standard beat-down scene in a smokey alley, but there are no femme fatales; each femme is pure-hearted. Apart from Susan, there is Helene Stanton playing Diamond's girlfriend Rita, and Helen Walker from Nightmare Alley playing Brown's ex Alicia Brown.  All the femmes are, at some point, tainted by Brown's evil, as if we needed more reason to hate him.

I really liked this, I guess it's considered a classic for a reason.  I can't go into too much detail because spoilers and stuff, but there are scenes that will really stick with you.  There's lots of violence, but it's all focused and never loses its emotional impact.

Random thoughts:
-There's a character halfway through the film that looks exactly like present day David Lynch.
-One of the film's most minor characters, a Niles Dreyer, is really memorable despite his real lack of impact on the film.  Possibly because of his foreign (Swedish?) accent and short, accentuated "ha's".

Best line: "Nobody knows how another person feels!", delivered angrily by Richard Conte.

Monday, 17 March 2014


Today's film is "D.O.A.", released in the year 1950, by the director Rudolph Mate.  Again, I'm not familiar with this director, so it's off to IMDB, which informs me he was the cinematographer on "The Lady from Shanghai", that Orson Welles picture which features him speaking in a nearly incomprehensible Irish accent.  Anyway, the movie stars Edmond O'Brien as Frank Bigelow, who begins the movie by marching into his local homicide department and instructing the man in charge that he wishes to report a murder.  "Who was murdered?," demands the man behind the desk.  "I was," Frank responds, with a dramatic sting.  And with that, Frank launches into a grisly tale of murder and intrigue.

Frank is kind of your standard film noir protagonist.  He's a blank slate, and his arc is that he solves the mystery confronting him.  He's the audience surrogate, finding things out as the audience does.  He is at his most passionate when he is convinced the truth is being held form him.  There's a twist, though.  The murder he's solving is his own.  He has been poisoned, and must find out who did it before his time runs out.

The movie features many attractive dames who contrast greatly in personality. The first dame is the love interest, Paula, who differs greatly from the deceptive, dangerous dames that make up the rest of the film.  She is full of nothing but love and devotion, in a way that some might find overbearing but Frank does not.  Her presence adds more tragedy to the film, an affecting example of a doomed romance. The other girls make up for her love, as they lie and pull firearms amongst other endearing actions.

And of course we have Chester the henchman, who's lethality poses a more immediate threat to Frank than does the poison coursing through his system. He is a laughing man in the vein of "Kiss of Death's" Tommy Udo, cheerfully describing how he is going to make Bigelow's death nice and slow.  As his boss describes, "he's psychopathic.  He's not happy unless he gives pain.  He likes blood."  He's menacingly played by Neville Brand, and is memorable in his own right despite being a clear cut example of "Follow the Leader."

This film has a distinctive premise which it executes smartly. Its particularly good at setting tone, following up tense scenes with violent scenes to underscore the always palpable sense of danger. I would say it's definitely worth watching if you're a fan of the genre.

Best line: "You know, you really frighten me," delivered sarcastically by Edmund O'Brien.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

"The Strange Love of Martha Ivers"

Hi! Today's film is "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," from 1946.  It's from some director I've never heard of, which is par for the course with these films really, unless you're a member of the Film Noir Foundation, which I am unfortunately not.  His name is Lewis Milestone, and IMDB tells me he would go on to direct the original Ocean's Eleven.  Fascinating stuff, I know.  Enough of that, onto the review/ whatever this is.

The movie opens with murder, grisly murder. The young Martha Ivers has attempted to run away from her aunt, whom she sees as cruel and domineering.  She is caught thanks to the squealing of young Walter O'Neil, despite the efforts of a young Sam Masterson.  I say young for reasons that will be revealed next paragraph.  Sam and Martha hatch another escape plan, which is interrupted by Aunt Ivers whipping their cat.  Martha whips back, sending the salacious aunt tumbling down to the stairs to her death.  Martha and Walter come up with a story of a mystery intruder for Walter's breathless father.

The movie fast forwards about twenty years.  Despite Martha being the titular character, Sam is unquestionably the protagonist.  He has grown into a handsome hard-boiled man, played by the actor with the equally hard-boiled name, Van Heflin.
Sam, looking especially hard-boiled as he lights a cigarette.
He drives into town after a long absence, getting into a car crash caused by him craning his head backwards while driving for approximately fifteen seconds.  He learns at the auto-repair shop that Walter is now District Attorney, Martha is his wife, and between them they pretty much own the whole town.  Only one thing could threaten them; Sam's knowledge of murder most foul.

Martha is played by Barbara Stanwyck, and she excels at the cool but passionate Femme Fatale role, but it is KIrk Douglas who really steals the show.  His performance of the conflicted, alcoholic, menacing Walter O'Neil lends the movie most of its dramatic weight.

This movie is as hard-boiled as it gets.  There's smoking - love interest Toni Marachek is introduced smoking two cigarettes in a row.  There's drinking - Walter O'Neil is the main offender, but Sam himself has no problems throwing them back.  And there's lots of steamy make-outs, all involving Sam.   He's portrayed as being quite the ladies man, in fact, at one point chatting up a secretary to get himself an appointment faster.

The movie is smartly written, with good foreshadowing and characterization.  Walter O' Neil probably would, in the end, "have been happier driving a truck."  Among the themes it intelligently explores is subjectivity.  Is Aunt Ivers, for example, cruelly evil or simply an authoritative parental figure?

I freely admit to being biased, as I like pretty much anything from this era, but I'd recommend this movie.  It's got all the noir hallmarks, and it does them right.

Random observations:  Some poor cop has been working the same beat for at least twenty years.
Best line: "It's a thin line between life and death," delivered dramatically by Kirk Douglas.