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.