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Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Wed May 17, 2006 6:46 pm
Fallen Angel (1945) - Otto Preminger
The first Oscar nomination can do strange things to a filmmaker. It can make him turn recluse, ambitious, confident, or hungry for more. Otto Preminger got his first Oscar nomination in 1944 for his work directing Laura, although there has been some controversy as to whom the real director was. It didnt matter though, because producer Preminger got the nomination, but although he lost to Leo McCarey, he won that much sought after confidence and leverage. Preminger would become Hollywoods most daring filmmaker over the course of the next twenty years, but his first film made after his breakthrough was right in the same alley. Fallen Angel was a film from a director who knew that he could direct, and knew what he could direct.
The film is noir all over. The setting is a small ocean town in the middle of California, 180 miles from San Francisco, and just about anywhere else. The action begins on a bus, and goes to the only logical place possible, to the diner. How often have we seen the dark and mysterious stranger, arriving like a hobo to get a cup of coffee in the only place open in town. Whos there but the old man owner, telling the police about his girl who just ran away. After the cop gets the information, Stella (Linda Darnell) walks in, and shes sex all over. Shes got every man in town wrapped around her finger, and she knows it, and we instantly know it. For a minute we start to wonder if this is going to be The Postman Always Rings Twice all over again, but Preminger wouldnt go there, that would be too simple. Besides Bruce Cabot is her father, not her husband. That dark, mysterious stranger however is hooked when she eats his burger, and makes him pay for his coffee.
That stranger is Eric Stanton, and hes played by Dana Andrews who could scarcely be farther from the somewhat pathetic role he had in Laura. Heres a man with confidence, a smooth talker who can walk into any situation and make it his. Hes full of himself, and in this regard he makes a perfect match for Stella. Theyre too big for this town, but theyre just perfect for each other. Stellas no easy mark though, but shell bait Eric just enough to get what she wants out of him. She doesnt want fun or a good time, she wants something for the long haul. Shes heard vague and empty promises from every man in town for years, and she wants a home, a family. Shes the type of girl that everyone wants to wed, but no one wants to be married to. Her reputation is bad, this makes her instantly desirable for a conquest, but worthless as a spouse. Yet with that type of sex appeal, shell make any man promise her the world, and shell damn well get it.
Eric is the first man who seems determined to get it. Sure he rode into town on a buck, but he knows how to get more. He successfully conned a cheap spook show act (John Carradine) into publicity, and managed to dupe the whole town into making his show a sell out. Hes good when he needs to be, and just amoral enough to get what he wants. He wants Stella, but he knows that type of girl always comes with a fee, but theres a way to get it, he just needs to be a little ruthless. He finds that the towns spinster June Mills (Alice Faye) seeks to inherit $25,000. Among his other research he also found another man managed to con about half of the original sum out of her. He knows she has money, and he knows she can be fooled, the only question is can he be that ruthless?
Dana Andrews plays Stanton like a thug, but one that resents his own conscience. He wants to be merciless, uncaring, unfeeling, because he knows thats how you get ahead, but theres something inside of him that wont let him. We start to see his indecision, first its when he fails to leave town, several times, and later hes ready to call the whole plan off. He made a deal with the devil though, and shes not willing to renegotiate. She liked the original offer of 12,500 and when he balks its the same line shes heard from every other guy in town. Shell love him alright, just long enough to have some fun. Shes hardly made for domestic duties, despite what she might say, shes just tired of being used and the object of affection, she wants something for her good looks. Stanton is so self possessed that hes almost willing to believe shell have him just as he is.
The film is infused with sex. For obvious reasons no direct reference could be made, but you get a few good clues. When Stella and Eric are dancing, they kiss, and suddenly stop. They grab each others coats and walk outside. Sure the scene following shows Stella resisting, but she had an open invitation in there. Were led to believe that shes given Eric the taste, and now its up to him if he wants the rest. Likewise when June and Eric are in San Francisco the two lie in bed, and the camera pulls to the window, which slowly dissolves into day. Sure their clothes are still on, but surely this marriage has been consummated, after all Alice Faye is nothing to turn down.
Stella is murdered not just for her own good, but for the good of the town. Sure her father will never see this, and the humanist in us refuses to believe she deserved to die, but she was trouble. Her killer is punishing this Eve for tempting mankind. She wont be able to harm anyone else, she wont be taken out by a different guy every week. She wont be stared at or ogled over in the diner, and most importantly for Stanton, she wont be able to tempt him. With her gone, he can be a husband. Sure he had an impure motive for marrying, but with Stella gone, he can make it right. She bought the line that he was selling, and all he has to do is live up to it. He knows he can, but he also knows that he couldnt possibly be a decent husband with Stella around, hell he goes to see her on his wedding night, a fool move all around. However his being spotted that night sets up not only his suspicion, but also an alibi.
Preminger lets us think the worst of Eric though. Even while professing innocence, he still leaves town, and tries to ditch his wife. When she gets picked up by the police, he bolts. While hes telling June all about how he got blamed for doing things he didnt do, you hardly believe him. This is a compulsive liar who we already knows has next to no morals constantly trying to sell an image of himself. We want him to be innocent, because hes our hero, hes the guy we first see in the film and the one whos story were witnessing, its only natural for us to be on his side. But on the other hand hes a heel, and you always have your suspicions as to whether hes on the level.
Windows are a predominant image in the film. We first see the bus pull into town from the outside, looking through the windows. When Eric and Ellis go to the Mills household, Clara opens the window in the door, not the door first. When Clara (Anne Revere) sees Eric leave the house on his wedding night it is through a window. After the marriage has been consummated, the camera pulls to a window. When Stellas neighbor is woken up by Erics late night yelling, she yells at him through her window. Now this might be far off, but I believe the window motif is used to show a narrow escape. They are constantly in the film, showing that perhaps Eric can and will get out of this, but it wont be easy, unlike if the predominant image was doors. Instead it is a way out, but its sneaky, and Eric naturally has to be sneaky if hes going to get out of this.
As usual though, the feel of noir is from the look. It never rains in this town, but thanks perhaps to the ocean mist, everything seems to look fresh from a storm in the nighttime. Everyone lurks in the shadows, Clara, Eric, even Bickford. We see June standing next to an open window (Erics escape?) and we cant even make out her face from the shadow. When Eric and the detective walk into Stellas apartment, Eric takes his hat off but the detective leaves his on. I thought about the scene in Somewhere in the Night, which also features a detective played by Charles Bickford, who always leaves his hat on, because he never knows when hell have to draw for a gun. Perhaps Mankiewicz took a cue from this film when he teamed with Bickford the very next year.
The only flaw I was able to find in the film was the agitated performance of Stellas neighbor when being questioned after her murder. It is unnecessarily cooky, and you get the feeling that the actress was severely hamming it up. Considering that it is one scene, and a minor one at that it hardly detracts. What follows however is our first clue into the real killer. Obviously the watch Stella was given pops up. The film makes a point of not having Stella reveal who gave her the watch when shes questioned about it in the diner. She has nothing really to hide, but feels that its no ones business. All she wants Eric to know is that he didnt give her the watch. We get the sense that whoever did give her the watch might be the killer. When the detective beats her boyfriend asking him if he gave her the watch it is cruel. Hes jumped to the conclusion that the watch and the killer are intertwined. He says he knows that the guy is innocent, but keeps beating him because I didnt like his face. This is thug talk, and hardly the stance of a man on the law. This clues us into two things, first that the detective can be cruel and ruthless, and secondly that he knows something about this case that we and therefore Eric doesnt know. In any great mystery though, its not really finding out who done it, but how they figure out who done it. This remains one of the gems in Premingers catalogue before he was too over burdened with breaking the production code.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Tue Jun 06, 2006 5:15 pm
The Street With No Name (1948) - William Keighley
The first thing you notice about William Keighley's Street With No Name isn't the city landscape, the forewarning shadows, the desolate skid row setting, but the horribly out of place opening music. Lionel Newman was Fox's primary music director at Fox, and one suspects that he didn't even know what this film was about when submitting credit music. It's loud rambunctious, and sounds like it should be played by a marching band in a parade, not the cool seductive bop music one would suspect with noir. The credits role in bright white backdrops. The story then begins with an FBI disclaimer almost identical to the one used in Henry Hathaway's House on 92nd Street. We see the FBI at work, and even the FBI's chief inspector Briggs is played by Lloyd Nolan who was also an FBI inspector in Hathaway's film. Things are instantly familiar, and on top of that, the film was also remade in 1955 by Samuel Fuller as House of Bamboo.
Whereas Fuller's film employed a wide aspect ratio, bright colors, and an exotic locale, Keighley is keeping his film sparse. Its in black and white, and it takes almost 20 minutes of the film before we really get the feeling that it's indeed noir. It isn't until Eugene Cordell (Mark Stevens) arrives on skid row on a "street with no name" in an annonymous city referred to as Center City, that we feel this is noir. The penny arcades, the signs with lights out, this is the settign of the lowlifes and degenerates we've come to expect in a crime film. Fuller used a similar contrast with his war ravaged Tokyo. Each film deals implicitly with the aftermath of war, in Fuller's film it is scene more as an outgrowth of postwar readjustment. How the country was left ravaged and fell prey to crime to readjust. In Keighley's film the war is a more ambiguous concept. It wasn't a hellish experience, but a training ground. The war made these men better criminals, and although they fought to protect and save their country, now they fight to rob it.
Most if not all of the Stiles gang is from the military. We know that Alex Stiles (Richard Widmark) is a veteran. He is a peculiar crime boss. A married man, who maintains little to no respect for women. He uses a screening process similar to that of the army to get his "recruits". He frames up his prospects and then uses that as a grounds to access criminal records. Cordell even calls him General at one point. Although we're left to suspect where his true feelings lie, because he carries around not an American pistol, but a Luger. He is the film's most complicated man who's main flaw is believing he's smarter than everyone else, and he nearly is. His one physical weakness seems to be his dependency on nasal sparys, which could be perhaps a symbolic cocaine addiction, or it could just show how he has one small defect. However this trait is somewhat discarded as the film progresses, and the later parts of the film generally avoid it. Stiles plays the piano, and while playing you get a small sense that he indeed does love his wife, but his machismo can't show it, especially in front of his gang. His wife (Barbara Lawrence) is the one person in the film willing to fight back. When he slaps her, she slaps back. It makes her a much stronger female than we typically see as the gangster's girlfriend. A type usually reserved for either dumb drunk blondes, or deceptively cold femme fatales.
Widmark was already being type-cast by this point in his career. He got his big break playing a thug, and the role seemed to suit him. For nearly a decade after he played a host of criminals and degenerates. Even when playing the protaganist (as in Fuller's Pickup on South Street) he was still a loser, and at least a failure in character. Here his greatest asset is his intelligence. His one golden rule of his gang is that he makes the rules and does the thinking. It goes over well with the majority of his gang, who are textbook cases of mindless thugs. They just want money and something to show off, whereas Stiles is out for something bigger. He wants power more than money, and doesn't have a very hard time parting with cash. All throughout the film he doesn't seem to have too much concern with his finances. He'll easily give money for one of his guys to get some threads, and his apartment, although nicer than the hell hole Cordell is living in isn't a luxurious palace we might expect from a crime lord. He even dishes out payoffs when unnecessary. Perhaps, like his Luger, he's more associated with the German's and power. His admiration is in being in control, being the boss. He's young, and its this quick rise that makes him arrogant and partially blind. Even when he's at his most clever (catching the switched Luger and getting its prints read) he commits his fatal flaw (being seen entering the police comissioner's house.
Fuller's film has much more life to it, but it is farther from a film noir. It is more of a yakuza film in the style of Suzuki than noir. Keighley's film although flirting with a docudrama approach early on, quickly assimilates itself into the style of noir. The warehouse basement of the gym is seen in complete blackness when Cordell enters it. The final scene in the manufacturing plant is all done in low key lighting. The small light reflects brilliantly off of all the machinery and metal. The final chase reminds one of the glorious finale of Walsh's White Heat, minus of course the explosives. Joe MacDonald, like many other photographers got his schooling in noir, he also shot The Dark Corner, Call Northside 777, and Panic in the Streets. Like Northside, this takes awhile to find its style, but by the end, this can be called nothing else but noir.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Thu Jun 22, 2006 2:47 am
House of Strangers (1949) - Joseph L. Mankiewicz
In the wake of Citizen Kane many self important filmmakers adapted various techniques in the hopes of giving their films some added credibility. Joseph Mankiewicz had been steadily building as a major writer-director for 20th Century Fox, and although he was thrown into a somewhat low budget project with House of Strangers, he took this opportunity to play with the format. House of Strangers takes a non-chronoligical look at the events leading up to the eventual release of Max (Richard Conte) who spent the last seven years in prison.
We don't know at the outset why he was in prison, how he got out, or who put him there, but a few things begin to make shape up rather quickly. The first scene in the film has Max entering a bank. We quickly find out that the bank is owned and operated by Max's three brothers (Luther Adler, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Paul Valentine). The bank used to be run and owned by the brother's father Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson). Well details slowly unravel as we find that the old man is dead and we're left to believe that the brothers, either all or some of them, are responsible for his incarceration.
Rather than unfold as a vendetta with perhaps a brief flashback sequence Mankiewicz abandons this idea quickly. His first stop after the bank is to his old girlfriend Irene, played by an unimpressive Susan Hayward. Like most females in the noir world she falls into the category of the weak and needy type. She provokes nothing, but her suggestion for Max to abandon his bloodlust and move with her to San Francisco does wind up being a motivating factor for him. The dialogue between them is full of innuendos, and with very little interpretation we're led to believe that she hasn't exactly been faithful to Max during his long sentence. In fact more so than any visual cues or plot devices, the thing that most makes this fit in a noir cycle is the dialogue between Conte and Hayward. Their entire reparte is full of innuendos, double entedres, and all those fast talking lines that people in a real conversation would never use. Perhaps Mankiewicz and screenwriter Philip Yordan were inspired by William Faulkner's script for The Big Sleep.
Max returns home and while sitting next to the fireplace over which a portrait of his father hangs, he begins to recall the events leading up to his social ruin, and the reason for his bitterness. When we first see Gino, we get a rather warm reaction to him. He seems a likeable guy, singing in the bathtub, opening the bank when he gets there. He's in no rush, and he clearly does things his own way. At the bank he's willing to loan nearly anyone money he feels is worth a shot, never asking collateral, just stories. Robinson plays Gino like a warm hearted Italian stereotype and we take a liking to him rather quickly. For this reason its hard for us to eventually turn on him, as Max and his sons eventually do.
The story is told through Max's recollections, so this might lend some reason as to why Max appears so clearly the favorite son. He takes after his father the most, the self made man. All of Gino's sons depend on their father for their income, working at the bank in various jobs. Max on the other hand has a law degree and makes a living outside of his father's business. He is also stubborn, makes his own rules, and has an extremely difficult time taking no for an answer. These two men are certainly made from the same mold, and at first we have a respect for this. Max is remembering his father pleasantly, because at the outset of the movie he has every intention of avenging himself for his father's sake as well as his own. Therefore we easily see why the two share a common bond.
The resentment of the other brother's grows, and in all honesty you can't be too surprised. Gino has no respect for his other sons, and possibly they don't deserve it. He consistently belittles all of them, keeping them in remedial tasks at the bank, making fun of them, and undermining all of their decisions. The power structure of the family is clearly set up during an early dinner sequence. Max is late and the whole dinner is waiting for him. In the meantime everyone else wants to eat, but of course Gino will hear nothing of it. The relationship between Gino and his wife is also set up as one where the love evaporated decades ago, and possibly before they even came to America. This is a family that rarely speaks, can't stand each other, and their Wednesday night pasta dinners are torture for nearly all involved. The title of the film begins to make perfect sense with this scene, because it is a house of strangers they're all occupying. Joe's wife serves the primary function of a supporting female in a male dominated film. She is the instigating agent, the spoiler, the biblical Eve. Everything might be alright if she wasn't nagging at her husband to rock the boat, demand a raise, and willing to ostricize herself from her adopted family. Its a sad role, and one that pops up far too frequently in these pictures. There is always a misogynistic undertone leading us to believe in film that women are the cause of all evil, even more than money. In the case of this film, money seems a factor, but only because the woman wants it.
The other somewhat major female role is also a rather weak individual and a poor charecterization. Maria (Debra Paget) begins the film as Max's fiancee. The two are to be married, but of course Irene complicates things. Gino thinks its perfectly fine for Max to have this fling before marriage and doesn't seem to worry when the relationship goes awry. He assumes Max is having some fun, and when its over will go ahead and marry Maria. He is convinced that in America nearly all marriages are designed to be loveless ones. Maria becomes weak because as she gets scorned, she naturally becomes weak and latches onto Max's youngest brother Tony. The news doesn't seem to effect Max too much, because he becomes obsessed with Irene. In fact he becomes so absorbed in Irene and the fact that for once he's not getting things his way, that he completely ignores his father's initial legal troubles. It is this initial neglect that help to make Max feel neglectful, and an unworthy son. He needs to make up for not listening, so he's willing to do anything to win the case, and it is this guilt that brings about his own misconduct.
At its core, House of Strangers is about how we take after our parents, whether we like it or not. Its message in the end however is that we need to establish our own identities. With a domineering father like Gino, these boys in many ways fear becoming like him. They all, including eventually Max, resent him and don't like the thought of taking after him. This is a familiar theme in Mankiewicz's work and something tells me this is one of the elements from the original screenplay that he helped to encourage. The film however does have a forced studio production overtone to it, and too much of it falls into conventional subject matter. Its layout and execution is rewarding, but ultimately the film gets bogged down by too many formulaic elements.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Wed Dec 20, 2006 1:47 am
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) - Bruce Humberstone
Some films mysteriously fall through the cracks only to be recovered eventually. This film is an anomaly in that it predates nearly every convention of the noir genre yet is buried amongst studio vaults where it has had next to know attention paid it for years. Part of this may be due to Fox's strange broadcasting rights, another part may be due to the remake of the film which brought this version out of circulation. I wake up screaming was made in 1941, the same year as Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, and the picture borrows heavily from both, but without apparently being inspired by those two.
There's a detective, a murder, a likely suspect, a love triangle, and a jumping narrative. From the beginning we are introduced to characters in shadow, or hidden in complete darkness. Angles are canted, the frame is disjointed. Somewhere along the line Humberstone was doing everything right, and no one seemed to notice. Perhaps it may have been the fact that no one was sure what to do with Betty Grable in a film like this, an actress generally reserved for corny god awful musicals. The film's lone deleted scene actually featured Grable singing the song "Daddy", an interesting piece of music, and an ironic song considering the nature of Carole Landis' character. However it does detract from the film, and its exclusion is for the best, because the musical interlude would have seemed wrong for the picture. It also would make more of the emphasis on the film be for Grable who stays mostly supporting to victor Mature.
Grable does get the top billing here, but thats not surprising considering this was during her reign as 20th Century's biggest star, which would only increase over the next couple of years when she became every GI's favorite pin-up. Therefore it seems odd that she is the "plain" sister and Landis becomes the model, although not to detract from her looks. The casting however is good because you can believe these two hot blondes could be related. Mature was famous for being a lousy actor, and there isn't much here to convince you otherwise. He was competent at best, and his role here although nothing noteworthy is decent enough not to be aggravating. In many ways it would rank among his similar turn in Kiss of Death, in both cases he is a victim who can't count on the police for help. Here however, despite the fragmentary style of the opening, we never are sure whether or not Mature is Vicky's murderer. Based on the twisting nature of noir plots we're never quite sure if he may in fact be the culprit after all.
Everything for the solving of the murder is set up in the beginning, but it isn't until the end that it starts to make sense. A few details are revealed, and suddenly everything comes together. Its always great when a plot can have several threads going that appear useless distractions and padding for length, yet culminate together. So in this regard, nothing is wasted in the film. Even the deleted scene would have explained why Jill arrived at her apartment to find Vicky recently murdered. So from the cards on flowers, to the man in the window its all just pieces to a puzzle. The twist and therefore motive of the murder seems a bit of a mystery. Even the motive established for Frankie seems a bit far fetched. Who would murder someone for getting a Hollywood contract? However every character encountered has some method for feeling some resentment towards her.
It is an ironic touch that the film score repeatedly features Alfred Newman's "Street Scene" because the film of the same name was Humberstone's second effort as an assistant director. You will hear throughout the film the extremely familiar "Over the Rainbow". It may be interesting to point out at this time that The Wizard of Oz was still considered a flop, so audiences of the day did not have the same instant recollection of the song that we would have today. The score therefore has a somewhat recycled quality to it, and is one of the many penny pinching devices used in the picture. Therefore the film also set up the noir precedent of not carrying a particularly large budget.
Humberstone's film deserves to be ranked among the most important noir features, and although it may not be the best of the bunch, every film of its kind made afterwards owes it something of a debt. Even the tactic of camera placement is familiar here. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is constantly shot from a low angle and the effect is obvious. Not surprising that the tactic is reversed following his defeat, where he is shot from above collapsed on his desk. In this way the film is symmetrical with Mature and Grable leaving together past the cops who at the films opening kept them in separate interrogation rooms. Perhaps my favorite touch of the film is the first shot of Mature where we see just his shadow reflected on the wall of the interrogation room which looks like something out of waterfront dock. We know we're in noir territory, for the first time too.
Grade A -
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 4:58 am
Ok, the nw year has started better than the previous one. When I woke up I actually felt good, and I ended rewatching three classic noir films (all of them favorites of mine) with a couple of guys who where watching them for the first time, and were at least as thrilled as me.
Now its four in the morning, but James Browns tribute to life is playing through the speakers, and honours the death of yet another american icon. I feel good - hopefully for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately our guys in the movies rarely get to feel this way.
The first one was a remake, The Maltese Falcon from 1941, which proves that trying your hand at another ones material can be the best thing that could happen to you. At least for John Ford it was, but with such a tremendous start, how will one ever be able to repeat it? Huston who wrote his screenplay for his film worked wonders. When I saw the film for the first time, some six or seven years ago, it was my entry to "film noir", and I loved it. Nevertheless I had forgotten much of the thrill rather quickly, and not having seen it again in such a long time, I was taken by surprise when I discovered that the whole movie, complete with every character and the dialogue plays perfectly on a second level, where the characters symbolise Hustons many personas via Freud. No wonder he would later make a film on him. An intellectual treat, similar to Hitchcocks Rear Window, but more refined, and with the grace of a greek tragedy which Euripides couldnt have planned better, nor Angelopoulos transferred with more honest inner pathos onto the screen. A monument to the art of film to function on various levels while retaining an elegant simplicity. And what sex appeal Mary Astor had. Almost a christ-like figure, she is oozing with it in a performance that is completely her own.
Chinatown (1974) must have been a remake of this. And although Faye Dunaway may prove to be closer to Lauren Bacall she is still acting like Marey Astors character. Polanski watched the right one.
Second was Sunset Blvd. (1950), Billy Wilders ultimate expression for his love of Cinema itself and his disgust with everything that has to surround it - at least in Hollywood. An ode to human fantasy, it nevertheless doesnt have quite the belief in itself than Hustons debut. But then. Wilder was already well-established when he realized his self-criticism. Although losing something of its edge through the last monologue by Gloria Swanson in the last scene of the film, still a great effort. Swanson and von Stroheim steal the Show completely, she with one of the best performances ever captured on screen with him not far behind. + you discover that movies were smarter when they were young. Naivite as a grace and a gift of the enlighted. Death as the consequence of our society.
The last one was one of my absolute favorites, Hawks The Big Sleep (1946) which I had laready watched about four times. The fifth viewing wasnt so kind to it. Watching it after two impressive outings, it paled in comparison. The chemistry is there, but while I was for the first time actually able to follow the story (thanks to my co-viewer attention to verbal information ), I ended up not caring much about it any more. Humphrey Bogart seems like a predecessor of both James Bond and Bruce Willis, as woman after woman falls to his feet while he is churning out one-liners like he was fed with them. Hawks didnt care much about the construction and the logic behind it.
Unfortunately Jean-Luc Godard had The Big Sleep in mind when he made Alphaville in 1965. Though he didnt create another masterpiece like Polanski, he intensified the love scenes of the original and improved upon the muddled intrigue, by enhancing its social relevance. But instead of deadpan, Godard prefers pathos. Youll have to decide for yourself, but I like both. Its also funny to see how future directors copy certain scenes almost frame by frame including (with little updates) the dialogue. Chabrol must have also been thinking of The Maltese Falcon when he directed Rien ne vas plus (1997).
Nevertheless it is interesting how our perception of films can change over the years, and its funny what experience can bring. Usually its not what you would expect.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 6:47 am
Which version of The Big Sleep have you seen? I only saw the pre-release version, and saw a few of the different scenes in the 1946 version that was released to theaters, and there's a remarkable difference in the dialogue, with the version released officially bearing the same corny reparte delivered in Double Indemnity. I must also say I'm shocked that you gave the Maltese Falcon a 100. Granted I think the film is probably one of the 20 best films of all time, and remains my favorite film noir (Citizen Kane isn't noir), but a rating of 100 from you I don't recall ever having seen.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 7:15 am
Dont know which version I have seen, only the fact that the latest viewing didnt overwhelm me.
And believe me, youve already seen a couple of my 100 ratings (you even replied to one ). And they are rare but not this rare. The rare ones are the ratings above 100 (yes, I have such a thing!)
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 7:18 am
Ok now that's just silly. I might start working on that foreign list soon.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Mon Jan 08, 2007 8:40 pm
The Narrow Margin (1952) - Richard Fleischer
In the annals of B-pictures Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour gets frequent mention as the best of the worst. An equally voiceable camp would label Richard Fleischer's Narrow Margin with that distinction. Of the two films there is hardly any comparison, Fleischer's film blows Detour out of the water and then some. Instantly classic, full of great characters, tough dames, a lot of deception, and that intricately woven plot were even the most minor supporting players play into the big picture. Nothing is out of place here, and its the type of clever noir that maxes out its 72 minute running time.
Watching three noir films this past week, I found myself unable to properly write reviews of Brute Force and Raw Deal. Dassin's film is more prison melodrama than noir, and Mann's picture is another delicious noir, but the characters in it are weak. Connections are made, and chemistry is explained in the plot without ever really being believable. In The Narrow Margin everyone is played to perfection, and none more than Charles McGraw. A gravel voiced hard nosed actor that shines the way Tom Neal could only dream about in Detour. His presence is so strong, and his voice so memorable that I could listen to him deliver any line of dialogue and I'm on his side. Like the thug of Mike Hammer, he also doesn't have any particular scruples about police brutality. The noir's of the 50's feature harder edged protaganists, and although they might be on the side of the good, they are more than capable of borrowing a page from the crooks playbook.
When he is offered a bribe for the life of his passenger, you genuinely believe he's tempted. After all, that is a lot of money, and besides Marie Windsor isn't exactly the most pleasant companion. As he explains to another passenger though he is human, and sure that type of money is tempting, but as he says there isn't a price high enough to metaphorically sell your soul. He also has a grudge of his own, as the film begins with the murder of his long term partner. Of course this revenge motif helps to keep him honest, but it also borrows a page from the Western convention of opening with a bang. Get the audience pulled in early, and they'll stay with you. With this films miniscule running time, it isn't hard to stay with it. I have discovered my textbook use of noir technique in the early murder. Pearl's drop, and land at the feet of an assassin, with his whole face covered in shadow, and with just his gun visible in the light. Then the shooting takes place on the stairs with an extreme wide angle lense, everything about the genre's aesthetic principles is right there. This is definitely one of the best.
Re: Film Noir Journals
Posted: Tue Jan 09, 2007 3:26 am
Out of the Past (1947) - Jacques Tournieur
15 minutes into Out of the Past, you wonder if its a noir at all. The film opens during the day, in a quiet California town, up in the mountains. A random gas station, a diner, a lake for fishing, nothing to make anything seem out of the ordinary. Sure we're conditioned to suspect something, but for a film so greatly associated with shadows and low key lighting, this film is a little deceptive, and herein lies the theme of the film. Tournieur is setting up his film aesthetically to mimic the characters in his picture. Where everyone has a past, everyone double crosses someone, and no one seems to be who or what they pretend. Only the natives of that quiet mountain town seem to be genuine. Therefore setting up the other main theme of the picture and the larger social commentary, small town America is the real America.
However this film has earned its reputation as one of the best and most definitive film noirs, and we'll get into the reasons why. For starters there is the narrative. Come on a private eye, a double crossing dame, a frame, murder upon murder, stories within a story, and don't for a second think that shadows don't show up eventually. In fact to precede the narrative crux of the picture, and set up the ever necessary back story, the shadows are cast. Nick Musuraca shot the film, and he is quickly making a transition. Even though the scene before Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Ann (Virginia Huston) meet outside in the dark, the moon is so bright that everything remains illuminated. There is no danger in the scene, but when Jeff decides to tell about himself, then the road turns dark.
The story to tell is not just how Jeff crossed Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) but more importantly how he met, fell for, and was abandoned by Kathie Moffet (Jane Greer). Unlike many noir films involving a triangle, the billing for Out of the Past had Mitchum and Greer with top billing, leaving Douglas for after the movie title. True Douglas was still fairly unknown, with only one real prominent starring role before, but Mitchum and Greer weren't exactly big stars. In fact Greer, despite an amazing presence here and looking a very radiant 23 years old never really catapulted like her two male costars did. Douglas carries the same type of force and power one would come to characterize in his films, but without the fire breathing. True Whit has a weak spot, and that's Kathie. Both times he calls on Jeff's talents he is over a barrel. The first time he's out of a girl and $40,000, the second time he stands to lose a great deal more. The money and potential prison time apparently evens out how much Kathie materially means. Looking at her, you can't help but understand how someone might be a little crazy for her.
If it weren't for Ann, there's a good chance Jeff would have probably fallen right back into her trap. Jeff gets all the best lines here and one of my favorites is the last conversation he has with Ann. When talking about Kathie, Ann says "She can't be all bad", to which Jeff replies "She comes close". The second time he meets Kathie, he doesn't buy her line. He never for a second believes anything she says, and we as viewers never feel like he's falling for her again. Now without Ann its questionable as to how he would react. Sure Virginia Huston is a good looking actress, but next to Jane Greer come on? Even Whit stops buying her line, and he even looks forward to the thought of hanging her for crimes she in fact did commit. Knowing Kathie is a murderer, we have to accept that she in fact will get "dealt with" in the traditional Hollywood justice mode. Whit and Jeff however are innocent at least in terms of cold blooded murder. We know Whit is a crime boss, but nothing is said of his activities and specifically how he makes his money. He can make the order, but his hands remain clean.
The ending is very pessimistic, and the message seems clear, there really are no second chances. Past mistakes are inescapable. Jeff can't run from his past, and the ending removes all attempts at redemption. This can be read as a commentary on post war Europe, and the forgive and forget policy that America was applying towards their enemies. Tourneur was an immigrant, and read in this light perhaps he was saying that his is how they should have been dealt with. The wicked, need to be punished, and don't deserve to live among decent people. This may also explain why Whit has his house located in the remote Lake Tahoe, and Kathie says she and Jeff belong in the mountains. It maintains consistency, because none of the innocent die here. Eels is the closest thing to an innocent victim, and even he was working for the mob, just as Jeff's former partner was. In this regard as well, all the morally shady characters end up dead. Anyone who had anything to do with these hoods dies, with the exception of Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) who just seems to fade out of the picture. This film is too good to be bypassed, and remains one of the first stops on anyone's film noir journey.