Film Noir Journals

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Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Sat Dec 17, 2005 4:59 pm

I'll be watching a few noir films in the near future, and I thought this would be a great place to keep a journal of all the noir films that the members here watch and review. I'm innaugurating this with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Somewhere in the Night. I'll include grades with each film reviewed.

The Big Heat (1953)
Blade Runner (1982)
The Dark Corner (1946)
Fallen Angel (1945)
House of Strangers (1949)
House on 92nd Street(1945)
House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
I Wake Up Screaming
Kiss of Death (1947)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Whirpool (1950)
White Heat (1949)
The Woman in the Window (1944)
Somewhere in the Night (1946) - Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Well in my years of watching movies I've seen a lot of Mankiewicz and a lot of noir. Some films are inspired, some are mediocre, and some are just plain bad. In the case of Something In the Night I remembered why I watch movies, to discover that one magnificent film in a completely unexpected place. I've been extremely hard on film noir in my time, rarely if ever handing out a perfect rating despite obvious greatness, I've been even harsher for Mankiewicz, I wouldn't even give All About Eve a 5 star rating. This film, considered a lesser Mankiewicz effort, and one of his earlier ventures into directing is in my opinion his clear masterpiece. A perfectly constructed, often brilliant, constantly compelling piece of film noir that desperately needs reevaluation, and the reputation of such gems as Laura, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past.

Somewhere in the Night may have that chance. It recently appeared on DVD as part of Fox's amazing film noir collection. Every several months the studio puts out three of their classic noir films, and many of which, this film included, I had never heard of prior to it's release. Gems are being unearthed from the vaults, some of which hadn't even appeared on VHS. Watching Somewhere in the Night is like discovering a new piece of film history, a critical turning point in the career of Mankiewicz, and a complex and convoluted story that has a deeply satisfying pay off.

The reason for perhaps its being forgotten is the fact that the story seemed familiar at the time. There was a period when amnesia films were somewhat popular, and Somewhere deals with post war veterans, a subject that by 1946 was already starting to become overly familiar. I recall a short story by Ernest Hemmingway about a returning WWI veteran who took an extra two years to come home, which by that time no one wanted to hear his war stories, everyone was bored of "heroes". The American public may have felt the same way, after all what an easy gimmick, a grenade goes off, and bam amnesia, and there's your mystery. It's denser than that.

John Hodiak was nearly a bad choice for this role. His credits are sparse, he was one of the shipwrecked passengers in Lifeboat, but he works here. His one chance in a feature, and he shines. Makeup makes the film work. He was blown up by a grenade, and had a painful recovery. His face loses the bandage, but he comes equipped with an oh so subtle scar that makes him neither grotesque but reminds us that he was indeed a disabled veteran. This slight touch of realism works for the picture, in a world were people are still knocked out by one punch.

Richard Conte, a man who seemed to be in every Fox film in the 40's and 50's makes an appearance here, and delivers another perfect turn. He has that quality where he can both be a baffoon and a genius at the same time. A tough edge and a likeable quality if not somewhat flawed. He played this well in Jules Dassin's Thieves Highway, and shines here at his best, in a supporting role.

The love interest, as there must always be a love interest is Nancy Guild who has an instantly recognizable face despite never appearing in a movie I've seen. She has a look that works, and you can see rather early on that she is a girl to fall for, and her presence is neither as the "helpless girl" or the "tough dame". She is a real woman, a rare presence indeed in film noir, neither manipulative or gullible. I love her character, as I love nearly all other aspects of the film.

The mystery is one of identity. A similar theme was brought back in the Bourne Identity, but here was a man who didn't work for the government, but rather stole from them, or someone. A missing $2 million is enough to motivate any plot, especially when army pay at the time was $60 a month. You can see why everyone is going to such great lengths in this story for the money, and the identity of Larry Cravat, a man no one has either met nor heard from in 3 years. George Taylor is also a man with no past and no one to identify him, and his search for Cravat becomes his search for himself. A wonderful plot device that helps to unravell the story, and of course lead to much suspense, mystery, and intrigue.

I've ranted much longer on this film than most characteristic recently viewed movies, but I can't help it, I rarely feel this elation watching movies, especially American movies from the 40's considering I was convinced I saw everything great from Hollywood's golden era. Somewhere in the Night is out of DVD, and it's dirt cheap, buy it now!

Grade A

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby A » Sat Dec 17, 2005 9:48 pm

First, thanks for your enthusiastic review.
I haven't heard of the film before, but now I'll ad it to my "American classis to see" - list. Sounds like really something.
I don't think I'll watch any noir films in the next months, but maybe I'll catch "Dark City" and "Blade Runner" in theaters in March, and write some notes.
Who said film noir is dead!? Long live film noir!

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Fri Dec 23, 2005 5:27 pm

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

After the success of Laura (1944), Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and Otto Preminger teamed up to make this brilliantly crafted noir gem. The film resonates hard with me, as its focal point is not so much a murder, or an investigation, but the hate one man has for crime, and the ultimate fear that he'll wind up just like his hoodlum father. Much more depth than one might expect, but well with in the means of noir, thanks to a brilliant script by Ben Hecht, this film manages to make turns without going to ridiculous suspense heights. It was made before Preminger became the defiant antagonist to the Hollywood censors so the content pretty much plays it straight, but there are a few more punches thrown than the average film.

Dana Andrews plays the son of a hood, and a man that hates this more than anyone. Anyone who grew up with a jailbird, a deadbeat, alcoholic, or abusive father knows that this subject is much broader, and far ahead of it's time. Andrews is matched by the loving and extremely strong relationship between Tierney and her on screen father, the man who winds up getting blamed for the murder. The picture starts rather simply enough, there's a dice game, there's a big winner, there's a fight, and then the camera leaves us. It isn't until Paine is trying to get a hold of the dead man on the phone that we realize he didn't knife him. Sure Andrews' Mark Dixon was willing to blame the mob boss who got started by Dixon's father, but that seemed personal and unfounded. It is during Paine's accidental death that things really begin to take shape. Mark has to cover up the body because he's already been demoted, for roughing up thugs, and now with a phone call two minutes too late he is a murderer, and his first instinct is to cover up, and Mark does such a great job he never once is made a suspect, his father would have been proud indeed. It is this fact that makes Mark unable to live with what he's done. Killing a man isn't what bothers him, it's hiding it that shows him he isn't the man he wished he could be.

Tierney is absolutely gorgeous in this film, and although her role is clearly that of a supporting one, she acts as a conscience for the film. Mark is making progress through her. It is with her support and eventual love that he discovers he isn't his father and never could be, despite being one shot away from fulfilling his own death wish.

This type of complexity can be expected from Preminger who made a career out of making films other people wouldn't touch. I'm liable to run off again about another hidden masterpiece, but let's just say the film is well worth discovering. Perhaps Laura is a better film, but few if any noir films can top it. Where the Sidewalk Ends is still a little scene gem of a movie, complete with stark lighting, great character actors, and a powerful subtext.

Grade A-

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Fri Dec 30, 2005 4:49 pm

House on 92nd Street (1945) - Henry Hathaway

Well nothing in this film really qualifies as noir, but it got lumped into that undefined category with so many other early post war films. The picture plays much like Hathaway's follow up, 13 Rue Madeline. It is much more of a behind the scenes WWII film. Hathaway didn't seem to be the go to guy for combat pictures, but this type of picture worked for him.

The plot is simple enough. The US has atomic secrets being stolen, and they need to find out who done it before the Germans get the information, so with a few spies set up and a lot of FBI praise, they plant a man and hatch a plot to make everything work in their favor. There is moderate suspense, but Hathaway can't seem to hold anyone in that mood. I've always thought of the man as a rather poor director, a guy to go to when much more skilled auteur's were unavailable. His second rate skills may seem ideal for this picture dripping with B movie mentality, but instead it's just weak filmmaking. I have two more Hathaway films in my pile ready to watch, hopefully some of them are actually noir like their titles suggest.

The House of the title is a five story place in Manhattan where the Germans are running their little spy ring. They are all kept under a tight watch and they all answer to a mysterious man who no one meets named Christopher. The FBI's counteragent arouses suspicion when his credentials get altered by the FBI. He is out to find this Christopher, but it isn't that easy. In the process comes a lot of treachery, and of course US prevails.

It is somewhat joyous to see the good old USA triumph, much as it probably was at the time. House was actually a fairly popular film in its day, despite having C-Level actors as leads. Fox was either trying to make a new group of stars, or just wanted to keep the costs down. The subject of this was certainly timely, considering the film was released only months after the first atomic bomb dropped. The picture starts by saying that the film wouldn't have been able to have been made until the bomb was dropped, a fact that isn't much of a fact but used to make viewers find the film a little more important than it really is. The introduction is very similar to Fred Zinnemann's post war film The Search. Beginning with narration and a ton of stock footage. Hathaway uses new footage shot amongst this to give the impression that his actors and stars actually are/were part of the FBI. The documentary nature is virtually abandoned afterwards, but of course helps to tidy things up at the end.

The film is niether noir, suspenseful, or really captivating. It is decent, and there is a general desire to root for the good guys here, but it's second rate filmmaking at best. Coming off of some rather surprise masterpieces like Somewhere in the Night and Where the Sidewalk Ends, this film is clearly second rate, despite being much better known and generally much better respected.

Grade C+

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Sun Jan 01, 2006 3:28 am

Whirlpool (1949) - Otto Preminger

Well Otto Preminger once again teams with Gene Tierney, although no Dana Andrews. The result is what can loosely be called a trilogy of psychological film noir. Whirpool fits in easily with Where the Sidewalk Ends and Laura, not so much in it's plot, but in it's psychology. Each film features lots of lying, and each deals with a topic far more intricate than a mere thriller. Tierney here gets to parade as the star of the show, no longer supporting or even alluring, instead it is her film, the men only seem to support her.

The men of this film are regulars but still remarkable. Jose Ferrer who was just about to win an Oscar plays the "villian" of the picture, a hypnotist swindler who's too damn clever for his own good. Richard Conte, a long standing Fox regular plays her husband, a noteworthy Psychoanalyst who's a bit of a celebrity doctor, in the same way everyone in Hollywood seems to be a celebrity of some kind.

Not to read too much into the notion of celebrity here, that's not what really mattes. Tierney gets to stretch here first as the kleptomaniac bored housewife, and then as the somnambulist. She goes through a wide range of emotions just in the first 15 minutes of the film. She is the cool dignified lady, next thing you know she's fainted, playing dumb, getting hysterical, and finally returning to a loving wife, all of this takes place before even a shred of the plot has set itself into motion.

Jose Ferrer plays David Korvo with utter perfection. In my opinion it is his best performance. He is free of the gimmicks used in Cyrano and Moulin Rouge, instead he gets to simply act, from a dignified man of medicine, to a seducer, to the helpless victim, constantly manipulating, and always convinced of his own immortality. You get a sense quickly that Lt. Colton (Charles Bickford) is on to him, and you know that Conte's Dr. Sutton is more than on to him, but Korvo never seems to figure it out. It is the player getting played, who's own vanity prevents him from seeing his downfall.

This is an oddball of a mystery. We know who did it, even without seeing the murder take place, and we know that eventually Korvo and Colton will figure it out, but the quesiton is how? How will Korvo slip up, when will they discover the records, when will Mrs. Sutton start to remember? This is what makes the film interesting, just like watching a gangster film and knowing that the charismatic bootlegger is going to get killed, we just aren't sure how. The fun isn't the destination, but the journey there, and Preminger keeps this one interesting.

The notion of hypnotism and kleptomania could have been more fleshed out, but the point is made, psychology has it's place in a murder mystery, perhaps too much medical talk would bore viewers. This film is hardly boring, but it isn't exactly a diamond in the career of Preminger. Ferrer and Tierney may very well be at their best here, but overall the film lacks a little compassion and interest.

Grade B

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Sat Jan 07, 2006 12:37 am

The Dark Corner (1946) - Henry Hathaway

Well finally a Hathaway film that actually is a film noir. This story has all the right formulas, a somewhat shady private detective, an even shadier past, a murder, a cover up, and even a dame or two. This seems to follow in a general trend of Fox film noir of not having the female be an antagonist. Lucille Ball plays the secretary here, and is an anchor, support, and companion for our hero, not the reason for his misery. She seems to fall right in line with the "female as crutch" roles given out in many of this studios film noirs, most typically Where the Sidewalk Ends, but Gene Tierney was slightly more motivating in that.

The film is shrouded in darkness, and that is of course the biggest characteristic of noir. Joe MacDonald (a Fox regular for years) did the cinematography, and in many scenes, particularly in Brad's (Mark Stevens) office the look is absolutely perfect. MacDonald wound up with a trio of best cinematography nominations, but won none.

Mark Stevens may not be a name in the noir genre, but he does a damn good job here. His character recalls a little of the reckless violent screenwriter of Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place. Mark doesn't seem to be able to function without at least a little drink. Not sure how intentional his drinking is, but later in the film when he's asked for a drink he says "Never touch the stuff", we know that there was a dependency. In that scene Mark has finally figured things out, put two and two together, and can now make his move without being loaded on sauce.

Lucille Ball got the top billing, even though she is more of a support for Stevens, but well she was the "Queen of the B's" at this point. One of her few non-comedic roles, she still manages to get most of the few laughs, and there's a slight chuckle to be had watching her bat. She's charming here and is never too far behind her man, and as Stevens' Brad gives up at nearly every corner, Ball's Kathleen is quick with an idea, even if it's a bad one.

Aside from a few brilliantly constructed night time shots, there is hardly anything here of overwhelming value. This was film noir by the books, and it touches all plot points necessary. The plot works, although not in an overly compelling way. Clifton Webb plays a bit of a villian again, and his character is so obsessively smart that it makes him a downright awesome noir villian. You should have suspected it, after seeing his rather young wife (Cathi Downs). Hollywood's way of saying dating an older man is fine, just be careful. Ironic when Mari (Downs) blows off thinking that the man she's having an affair with is too young to be intimate with the old Constance Collier, an actress as old proportionately to her on screen husband.

The Dark Corner remains a damn good film noir. Not among the all time best, but certainly a text book case. And from what I've seen the pick of the litter regarding the somewhat lackluster filmography of Henry Hathaway.

Grade B+

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:24 pm

Kiss of Death (1947) - Henry Hathaway

With a forward at the opening credits proclaiming that this film was shot on real locations in New York you know one thing, youre watching a Henry Hathaway film. Hathaway had built a reputation at Fox for being a realist director. Shooting on location, adapting true stories, and the like. No matter how fictional the tales might be, the studios still helped to proclaim them as realistic, gritty films. Kiss of Death is another in this continuing series of true tales of crime and the social underworld. It is far from the first crime film to depict our main criminal as more of a victim than a thug. Nick (Victor Mature) is someone who got a raw deal, who were led to believe is in crime because he cant get any other job. This is a typically ultra-liberal approach to defending criminals, but there is some validity to it, at least in terms of this film.
Nick betrays his one code of honor, and that is the code of silence. The film may seem a counterpoint to the HUAC hearings which had their first round the year this film was made. That the notions of whether or not to squeal were honorable. Nick has respect amongst his peers. Hes no good as a criminal, but he keeps his mouth shut, and he takes whats coming to him. When his wife kills herself however, he doesnt see much of a point in sitting rotting in prison. His new mission is to be with his kids, and this again is making an excuse for Nick and his behavior.
Victor Mature was considered one of the worst leading actors of his era, and this film isnt much to persuade you otherwise. His performance at its best is merely adequate, but generally speaking you cant tell if his character is intentionally acting bad, or hes just that lousy of an actor. His dialogue is delivered with little inflection, and he always looks miserable and mopey. Hard to get a reading on him, and he is easily upstaged by nearly every other member of the cast. What people remember most from the film however is Richard Widmark, who was still rather unknown at the time of this films premiere. He plays a villain for the ages with Tommy Udo. The films most notorious scene involves him pushing the crippled mother of a man he believes to be a stool pigeon down a flight of stairs. It is pure evil, and a sinister moment that was largely unequalled in previous films.
His character is so evil its great. The film suffers when hes not on screen. Widmark steals every moment hes in the picture. His vocal inflections are great, and that maniacal laugh, it can give you chills. Hes a thug and bad guy, who still seems evil and comparable to the much more notorious and violent criminals of modern movies. Widmark would become a legend of noir in his own right with a string of future films at Fox, most notably Night and the City and Pickup on South Street. Here hes making an entrance and the movie is completely his when hes on screen. It gets to the point where you almost want him to get away at the end, because hes the more fascinating character, but in the world of 1947 film morality, theres no way someone like that can walk away.
The female of the story played by Colleen Gray is your typical supporting role. Shes there as the object of adoration. Patiently waiting for Nick to come out, and always willing to stand by him. She serves no real narrative function except to give him some additional reason to fight. She takes over as mother to his children and you get a feeling that he instantly loves her more than his dead wife, whom he doesnt seem to grieve for long. Not to say Gray does a particularly bad job acting here, but the constraints of her role dont particularly give her much depth. It is a typical tactic of Hathaway who always injects his film with an impersonality and a documentary quality. He is after just the facts, there is no room for psychology or depth. The only socioeconomic issues brought up in his films leave little room for interpretation. Hes saying what the characters are feeling, and he even undermines our intelligence further with stale voice over narration that over simplifies the already simple morality. Based on the strength of Widmark however, Kiss of Death will forever be a highlight in the world of film noir.

Grade B +

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:25 pm

The Seventh Vicim (1943) - Mark Robson

Low budgets, dark lighting, sinister music, and cheap psychology have long since been hallmarks of the horror genre. Val Lewtons nine horror films all seem to fit the description above. Acting is passable at best in these pictures, and the low key lighting is more a way to cover up cheap sets than it is a tactic of great filmmaking. Yet every so often amongst his rubble there is a film of particular interest, which may or may not be particularly good but at least interesting. The Seventh Victim, the first of Mark Robsons Lewton pictures is one of these. The film is a somewhat simple tale of a girl looking for her lost sister, but theres of course darkness up ahead. The tale of a search for a missing person is easily the subject of film noir, and with the lighting scheme, it would seem particularly self evident that this picture could fall into that land of private eyes and femme fatales. Perhaps the biggest difference comes from the chronology, the fact that The Seventh Victim was made before film noir was a particular style, but in many ways it is a direct prediction of the style to come.
The line between horror and noir in these days was defined by one particular thing, the element of the supernatural. In a horror story the killer was a monster, particularly inhuman, and there is always some easy psychological explanation to justify the monster. The fact that there is no real supernatural element in this film makes it even harder to make the distinction. There is a cult of Satanists, but theyre pledged to non-violence, hows that for hypocrisy? Now you can also point out the fact that the film isnt scary, but that is hardly enough justification considering who past the age of 8 really gets scared by films?
I have seen at least one source site The Seventh Victim as Lewtons masterpiece. I wouldnt say that is an overstatement. The film is exquisite in many ways. The performances might not be great, but certainly great for a Lewton film. Kim Hunter makes a positive debut as the young sister looking for her older, rich, and missing sister, played with considerable mystique by Jean Brooks. Her look is a cross between Ida Lupino and Louise Brooks. She walks around half hypnotized and makes the most of her limited screen time. Her character is ironic, she has a fixation about death, and dreams of killing herself, even keeps a room with a chair and noose. Yet when her cult requests her to kill herself shes unable to.
Some of the details are a little murky. The nature of the subject makes it difficult for the filmmakers to get too descriptive. The horror of the story, that is the cult makes its appearance dreadfully late. When they do it immediately picks up the story. After all, it gets a little old just seeing some dumb young girl wandering around looking for her sister, theres got to be a good reason why shes in hiding. What better reason than being psychologically damaged and having a mysterious group of devil worshippers after her?
Now there needs to be complications in a love affair in any story, particularly in noir. Kim Hunters character is the object of affection for two men here. One happens to be married to her sister, the other is a romantic poet who seems a much better match for her, but well sometimes the movies dont do things completely right. It is a bit of a twist to have the married man win out, encouraging the infidelity, even if his wife happens to be crazy. The poet naturally likens his predicament to that of Cyrano, and you cant help but feel cheapened by the parallelism.
There is mystery, there is suspense, and there is one particularly creepy scene where Jean Brooks is being pursued down a dark alley. It is a clear highlight in the film, and perhaps the only really jumpy moment in the lot. The image of her against a brick wall with just a flash of light on her face, with everything else enshrouded in darkness is truly an image to remember. Flawed as any Lewton film may be, The Seventh Victim still remains one of the best of the bunch.

Grade B

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:26 pm

The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) - Robert Wise

Whereas The Seventh Victim seems like a film noir labeled as a horror film, the House on Telegraph Hill is a horror film recently released on DVD in the Fox Film Noir collection. This may be because Robert Wise was a protege of Val Lewton, and made his directorial debut on his Curse of the Cat People. The movie poster for the film makes it look very much like a horror film, but so did the very unfrightening House on 92nd Street. Like Hathaways films though this has a little mixture of documentary thrown in. The prologue gives it a very real setting in a concentration camp, and the narration is a typical trademark of Hathaway, and film noir in general. Yet Hathaway seemed to prefer a female voice, so of course Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortesa) is a perfect choice for narration, especially because its her story.
The story becomes noir through and through before too long though. There is a case of mistaken identity, a covered up past, and what better place for mystery than the steep hills of San Francisco? Now there is a scene in this film of brakes being tampered with, and of course on these streets, thats something truly dangerous. I cant tell from insufficient research whether or not this is the first instance of cut breaks as an attempt to kill someone, but its funny how despite these numerous attempts in film and television, no one ever seems to die because of it. The scene does seem too familiar today and loses some of its original suspense, but the technique is still there, and it comes off as less ridiculous than Hitchcocks in Family Plot.
Theres something charming in Robert Wises early films. A hunger, an editor who raised promoted to director, given small budgets and trying to make due. I have heard many sources cite editors turned directors as the best filmmakers. They have a natural inclination on pacing, and how to set up a film. Cinematographers always seem to infest their films with far too many shots of nothing, and actors turned directors always seem to think that beautiful shots of sunsets are all it takes to make a great movie. Wise is a no-nonsense director and there never seems to be a wasted moment in his early films. The problem in most of them therefore lies in the plots, something that he rarely if ever had anything to do with.
House on Telegraph Hill hits you with one great mystery, and thats will Victoria be found out? In the moral code of the movies deception is almost always revealed and usually punished. Victoria believes her deception is going to be punished. She is posing as another woman, another woman with a considerable fortune to inherit, but there is a deception there. Along the way though she truly becomes the other woman, her past is dead, she knows this other woman as well as anyone, and naturally she grows to love the child of this other woman. It is the child that is the motivating element, even more than the money. It is Chris that binds the household together. Margaret (Fay Baker) feels shes the real mother, and in many ways she is the mother. Victoria certainly isnt the birth mother, and Margaret has spent far more time raising her, so its not surprising for her to feel resentment towards Victoria.
Mark (William Lundigan) however has a different motivation. He has more money than he knows what to do with, and he doesnt seem to care one way or the other about Chris. His motivation seems to be to avenge himself against Alan (Richard Basehart). Theyre a pair of old friends who always have a smile for each other, but have a bitter rivalry towards each other. Theyre like brothers who are nothing but cordial at holiday functions but secretly resent everything about the other. Mark has what he wants financially, but he wants to put Alan in his place. His social standing is above him, and he resents this unrelenting social climber. Likewise Alan resents Mark for having everything so easy, and its easy to see his contempt, because what poor soul doesnt resent the rich? Mark wants what he wants like any spoiled child, and he wants Victoria, not so much for himself, but in order to lash out against Alan.
The film overall is somewhat second rate. It went unreleased on VHS, and therefore was out of circulation for a very long time. It winds up not as a long lost buried treasure resurfacing, but a rather forgetful venture in what would become a rather promising directing career for Robert Wise. As a piece of film noir it is moderately successful, as a horror film it works a little better, but not enough to make it worth the wait.

Grade C +

Re: Film Noir Journals

Postby wpqx » Mon Apr 03, 2006 11:27 pm

The Big Heat (1953) - Fritz Lang

For all the brilliance of M and Metropolis, one may forget that Fritz Lang even went to Hollywood. When he made the Big Heat in 1953, not to many people took notice. Nearly fifty years later, not to many people have taken notice. It is one of Langs least talked about films, and doesnt frequently come up in a conversation of the best noir. So who did take notice of the film? Well apparently someone did, otherwise we wouldnt be talking about it.
The Big Heat is what we would call a sleeper. A film that went unnoticed, but somewhere down the road we decided that this was an interesting and excellent picture. Sleepers are some of the best candidates for a cult film. Take the Sweet Smell of Success (1957) or Stanley Kubricks the Killing (1956). Both of these films didnt stir up too much buzz, but they have since been regarded as classics. Langs film probably draws closer to Kubricks due only to the element of crime. Sure there are some underhanded shenanigans going on in Mackendricks film, but not in the organized crime world, so common thematically with noir. Yet all three films are completely unique from each other, and their genre.
The Big Heat does sport a more well known cast than most noir films. Glenn Ford stars as Dave Bannion, a hard hitting homicide detective. He is basically the standard noir hero. After a police officer commits suicide, he is appointed to the case. It doesnt take much to find out that things are different than the surface would indicate. Soon enough Bannions family gets to be the target of the people Bannion is trying to track down. The morals of Fords Bannion are a little stronger than most noir heroes. He seems constantly attached to this case. He wont give up, and he doesnt change with the wind.
Along the way he meets Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) a gangster who is quite abusive to his girlfriend played by Gloria Grahame (Debby Marsh). Grahame steals every scene she is in. Her career was in full swing at this point. She was in the years previous best picture winner, and took home a best supporting actress Oscar for her brief role in the Bad and the Beautiful. She realizes that Stone is dangerous and tries to get away, but Stone being who he is doesnt want to give her up. In one of the most shocking scenes in noir history, we see him through a pot of boiling coffee in her face, all for talking to Bannion. Just as disturbing is when we finally see her pull off the bandage to reveal the burn. This incident reminds me of the smashed coke bottle in Robert Altmans the Long Goodbye (1973).
Fritz Lang had a tendency to have his heroes punished for doing either the right thing or nothing at all. Spencer Tracy in Fury (1936) was accused of a crime he didnt commit and was the target of a lynch mob. Lang constantly showed bad things happening to nice people. Fords Bannion gets the short end of the stick throughout the entire picture. After a certain point in the film Bannion becomes obsessed with revenge, like Tracy in Fury and the underworld in M (1931). Lang left Germany as Hitler came into power, and he found ways to through any negative aspect of the Nazis in all of his subsequent films. He was obsessed with showing justice being robbed. Guilt or innocence made no difference in his world. He simply showed power being abused and corrupted.
Yet there are some good guys around. Bannion finds help from an odd group of people, such as the dead policemans mistress Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) and Debby. Bannion is cold to everyone he meets. His bitterness is found throughout, and he only seems to regain his humanity when he sees another person he cares for die. Debbys death is seen as a sacrifice to Bannion.
Bannions home is seen as the ideal American family. Every possession is being shared, and they are always happy with each other. It is only when Katie Bannion (Jocelyn Brando) leaves the house that she is killed. Who knows if there was an intention to show that a womans place is in the home. After she dies, Bannion sells the modest home, which he feels is of no use to him. There is a typical indictment of capitalism. Whoever has the bigger house, is more corrupt. Only honest man Bannion lives in a modest one story home. Everyone else is living in luxury, and is corrupt. Perhaps more political analysis was attempted by showing that you couldnt be honest and wealthy.
There is one problem with the Big Heat, and that is the pacing. The film is about an hour and a half, but it does move slow. This isnt the deliberately slow pace of such mesmerizing Kubrick or Tarkovsky pictures. Instead this film seems just slower moving. Now perhaps this was slow moving because it was a little confusing. You have to think quickly while watching noir films. Things arent usually explained in much detail. Instead you have to be as quick as the detective or hero who is trying to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. So if you are confused, sometimes you can get frustrated. No noir film can even come close to the similarly titled Big Sleep (1946) as being the most confusing film ever. It is said that the author Raymond Chandler didnt even know who dunnit. The Big Heat may be a little easier to follow, but it isnt that simple. Its potential confusion is only one reason to return to it. If you need another Ill give you one, Gloria Grahame.

Grade A


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