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.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

"This Gun for Hire"

Warning: This review features minor spoilers of the Denis Lehane novel Sacred.  If you're working your way through the Kenzie and Gennaro novels, don't read this I guess.

Today's film is the 1942 feature "This Gun for Hire."  It's directed by Frank Tuttle, and written by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, based on a novel by Graham Greene.  It stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, whom you might know from "The Blue Dahlia", released four years later.  (The Blue Dahlia is actually one of my favourite noirs ever).  It's a complex tale with lots of betrayal and political intrigue.  So let's dive in, shall we?

The film opens with hard-boiled hitman Raven, played by Alan Ladd waking up in his room.  It's established immediately that there is a duality to his character, gentle and aggressive sides, as he is shown caring for a cat and attacking his cleaning lady (in fairness to him, she was being mean to the kitty).

Raven kills a man, true to the mercenary nature of the title of the film, recovering some sort of chemical formula or something from him.  He receives payment from his boss, amiable fat person Willard Gates, played by Laird Cregar.  Cregar is shown as a man who enjoys excess; he consumes ice cream at an incredible rate.  He is also bit of a backstabber, paying Raven in marked bills and reporting them stolen to the police.  Raven must elude a city wide manhunt on his quest to get to the bottom of the case, which has far reaching political implications.

Helping him on his quest is Ellen Graham (played by Veronica Lake), which is ironic, as she is the girlfriend of Michael Crane (played by Robert Preston), the police detective assigned to the case.  She possibly has canonical magic powers, as I can't figure out some of the illusions she performs in her job as nightclub entertainer. Through various occurrences, the two end up matching their wits against the police, Ellen at first motivated by Raven's revolver at her back, but later out of sympathy.

The movie uses the standard noir trope of the evil old rich guy, as seen in such works as the Dennis Lehane novel Sacred.   His name is Alvin Brewster, owner of evil chemical company Nitro.  He believes his money can get him out of every situation, and denounces those that don't believe in the power of currency "fools."

This movie principally explores two themes which it interrelates: death and justice. Adrian Brewster seems poised to get away with his shenanigans unless someone stops him.  Ellen urges Raven to obtain a written confession from Brewster, believing that the legal system will produce justice.  Raven, of course, has his own ideas of what justice entails.

So this film is political, though not as politically subversive as say, "The Sweet Smell of Success".  Its politics are fully fictional, and it deals in fairly conventional patriotic morality. (Foreign governments are evil, etc.) With that in mind, if you want an interesting plot with some tense situations and nicely realized characters, this is worth a watch.

Best line: "Who trusts anybody?", Alan Ladd asks pointedly.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

"Sudden Fear"

Today's film is the 1952 feature "Sudden Fear."  It's directed by David Miller, written by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith (based on the novel by Edna Sherry), and stars Joan Crawford and Jack Palance.  Once again, I've never heard of any of the cast excepting Joan Crawford, which is a state of affairs that will probably continue as we journey into more of these lesser known noirs.

The film's plot is relatively straightforward, and it's kind of hard to describe without spoiling it a bit, so be warned.  Wealthy playwright Myra Hudson (wealthy because she is both a heiress and a successful playwright) meets somewhat handsome actor Lester Blaine.  She falls for him, but soon discovers that he plans to murder her for her money.  Her will will freeze Blaine out after the weekend, so Hudson must survive increasingly desperate murder attempts as the clock ticks.

Sound familiar?  Well, I'm sure variations of this plot have been done time and time again, and there would be no shortage of such films afterwards.  The one which jumps immediately to my mind is Hitchcock's "Suspicion", which builds to this sort of plot only to subvert it in the end.

The first act of the film, then, plays like a straightforward love story, and works because of the chemistry betwen Crawford, who plays a civilized yet passionate woman, and Palance, whose character is suave, but not overly so.  He seems really genuine, and these elements make the reveal very effective in terms of shaking up the structured story.
The most effective part of the film, in my opinion, is the second act, where Hudson learns of her husband's sinister intentions. She tries to keep herself alive while trying not to let on that she has learned of Lester's plot, leading to some tense moments.  Both characters, in this scene, are acting, fitting because one is actually an actor and the other a playwright.  I don't think I'm going too far when I see this as a commentary on the sort of fake, soulless situation that marriage can turn into, even when both partners aren't scheming to murder each other.

The film has some interesting production choices that help to distinguish it from its brethren. I'm sure the editing used during the dramatic dream sequence, for example, was cutting edge at the time.  And the lighting choices made during the final act sometimes blur out everything but Joan's terrified eyes as she struggles to stay alive.
So would I recommend this movie?  I'd say so.  Again, I'm pretty sure it's not the most original of plots.  But I really do think that some of the choices made make the film work (such as the beginning, for example, though I'm a sucker for the whole play/film within a film concept).  And one should definitely appreciate how well Crawford and Palance know their characters; the film is definitely richer and more believable for it.
Best line: "Dames," muttered dismissively by some extra.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

"Sweet Smell of Success"

Today's film is the 1957 feature "Sweet Smell of Success."  It was directed by Alxeander Mandrick and stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.  It's unique in that its not ostensibly about crime.  There are some petty crimes, sure, but mostly it deals with actions that are unethical rather than outright immoral.  I mean, nobody gets murdered in this film.

The film is about columnist J.J. Hunsecker and his publicity agent friend/associate Sidney Falco.  Falco depends on J.J. to give his clients mentions in the column, so in return Hunsecker asks Falco for a favour.  Falco is to break up the romance between J.J.'s sister, Suzie and her jazz player friend Steve.  The film follows Falco's attempts to do this as, at the same time, he tries to make a name for himself in the world of 50's gossip and press.

I would say our protagonist is Sidney Falco, despite Burt Lancaster getting top billing.  He's introduced first (in person, anyway), where we get a look at what drives him in the form of a speech he delivers to his secretary.  The film, I would argue, follows his story a bit more closely than it does J.J.'s.  Tony Curtis manifests Falco as quick witted but also quick tempered, these two traits complimenting each other in the form of scathing insults for those he perceives as slighting him.
I assume that J.J.'s actor, Burt Lancaster, is part owner of the company that produced the film,  Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions.  The Lancaster being in the name is my most obvious clue.  Anyway, this could be the reason that he is given top billing.  Alternatively, he could have been more famous than Tony Curtis at the time of the film release.  Or maybe I'm wrong and he really is the protagonist.  At any rate, he gives a captivating performance as J.J., bringing incredible presence to his roles and lines.  However, this is one of those roles in which the character overshadows the actor.  J.J.'s name is first introduced to us on the side of a newspaper truck, showing that his presence extends beyond the merely physical.  He becomes almost mythic in stature.

There is one main femme in the film, Suzie Hunsecker, played by  and she definitely isn't a femme fatale.  As J.J.'s sister, she lives constantly under his watchful eye, each action she takes earning approval or disapproval.  The trait that initially defines her is her love for Steve, but as the film goes on this becomes more of a mark of her determination to live life on her own terms.

Finally, our fourth player, Steve Dallas.  Hes the artsy type, playing in a Jazz quartet.  His role is a subversive one, I feel.  He gets associated with drugs and left-leaning politics, as opposed to J.J.'s fevered patriotism, and is not, I feel, portrayed negatively because of this.  He's not the protagonist, but he's definitely not a "bad guy."  Next to J.J. and Sidney, he appears in a flattering light, and you want to root for him.

One of the things I like most about this film is the dialogue.  Whether it's Sidney's scathing
retorts, J.J.'s framed ideologies, or Steve's earnestness, this is a film that has a lot to say.  Each line is loaded with emotion and there are plently of colourful, clever and meaningful metaphors.  Even lines that seem initially throwaway come back to seem relevant.  For example, Sidney mentions offhand that he's leaving his coat behind so he doesn't have to pay coat checkers.  Later, J.J. asks, "Where's your coat? Saving money on tips?"  Not only is this amusing, but it makes you think about the way Sidney acts and the way he is viewed by J.J., as small time and cheap.

I also noticed the music in this film.  What I noticed is, I'm sure, contained in many films but for some reason I noticed it in this film.  Its lazy and wistful in some scenes, blaringly dramatic in others; essentially it changes to fit the mood of the scene.  I don't want to post any examples for fear of spoiling things, but you'll definitely notice it upon a viewing.

This film is unique to me.  Obviously not all noir protagonists are perfect, but this is a clear cut example of the protagonists being "the bad guys."  They're portrayed as unethical, bringing them into conflict with the young idealists.  So it's interesting, but I should mention that not a single bullet is fired, so if you're looking simply for desperate characters in desperate situations acting desperately, this one might not be for you.

Best line: "With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men."  That's a good one, but I feel like everyone would pick that one, so I also like "You're dead son, get yourself buried," delivered dismissively by Burt Lancaster.