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.