Max Ophuls's reputation as one of the greatest of all film directors seems principally based on the films he did in Europe such as The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955), about which Andrew Sarris famously proclaimed “the greatest film of all time.” But before he got to those he was a temporary exile in Hollywood along with many of the greatest film directors of the 20th century, all European, all having fled from war-torn Europe. Some thrived in their new exotic environs (Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang), while some never quite regained their former stride (let’s at least think about including Jean Renoir here).
In Hollywood Max Ophuls made some of the most sophisticated thrillers of the late 1940s and yet, because they dealt with American women, were snubbed as "women's pictures" at the time. Both Ophuls's Caught and The Reckless Moment were released in 1949, ending the decade on a high note for nuanced portrayals of women attempting to navigate a darkened moral universe made unavoidable by the post-war era even as the coming Atomic Age onslaught of The Donna Reed Show was about to begin.Continue Reading
Act of Violence
It’s always been puzzling to me why this almost unbearably bleak noir hasn’t made it to the forefront of the pack of truly exemplary films noir in critical circles. If we are to use the canonical criteria for noir of noted local author, former peeping tom, and current all-around creep, James Ellroy, as best summed up by a two-word description, “you’re fucked,” then noirs don’t come much more noir-ish than Act of Violence. We hear a lot about noir embodying the postwar anxieties of the United States. Well, Act of Violence lets those icky feelings boil to the top and builds its plot around a hornet’s nest of postwar guilt, fear and anxiety.
Van Heflin plays Frank Enley, a WW2 veteran living an idyllic life in a small California town. He’s a family man, and a pillar of the community. The film opens with a crowd gathered to cheer him for his latest real estate development and he is described as having proved himself in battle, as well as in business, an all-around great guy. He bounces his little son on his shoulders while listening to his tribute with his wife. But this blissful scene is contrasted with the severe image of Robert Ryan, dressed in a trench coat and fedora in some New York slum, brandishing a gun, and lurching towards a Greyhound bus leaving for California.Continue Reading
TCM Dark Crimes Film Noir Thrillers
Bless you Robert Osbourne and Ted Turner; you always come through! Thanks to TCM three important films noir have finally gotten a U.S. DVD release. TCM's Dark Crimes collection features Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944), George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key (1942). Though none of these three films really quite stand up on their own as bonafide noir classics each one is an indispensable entry in the classic noir canon. Phantom Lady was adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich. The Blue Dahlia was written by Raymond Chandler while The Glass Key was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammet. And two of the films star the legendary Hollywood thriller pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
For my money Phantom Lady is the best of the trio. Though its first half easily out-classes its second there is enough existential dread and lonely urban ennui to secure its importance as a go-to example of shadowy lighting, paranoia, and romantic fatalism. Then unfortunately things get a bit hokey. Still, that first half really is stellar. Alan Curtis plays Scott Henderson, an unhappily married business man who steps out one night to get away from his daily grind of bickering with his wife by picking up a stranger at a bar and taking her to a show. Unfortunately his wife is murdered while he's gone and the police don't believe his story that he was never home. Scott's secretary Carol (Ella Raines) frantically tries to track down the mysterious "phantom lady" whom Scott took to the show and who would be able to secure Scott's alibi. Along the way there's Elisha Cook Jr. at his sad-sack sleaziest and eventually Franchot Tone as a sensitive artist obsessed with hands (as the wife was strangled, I'm sure you can guess where this is going).Continue Reading
For a downbeat noir as pessimistic as they come look no further than Andre De Toth's Pitfall (1948). It's a film that depicts a time often thought of as a golden age of American prosperity and nuclear family bliss and then tears our warm and fuzzy notions to pieces. After the end of WW2 the G.I. Bill changed America for the better. For the first time many more Americans would get a chance to go to college while also being able to own their own homes. People had tons of kids. Suburbia and the good life soon followed and we never really looked back. But all this peace and prosperity left some feeling trapped. Life for some became bland and predictable and if noir has taught us anything it's that a husky-voiced blonde can be as lethal as dynamite.
Dick Powell plays John Forbes, a man who seemingly has it all: an adorable son, a loving wife, a nice middle-class house, and a decent job working in insurance. But John is sullen and not terribly appreciative of how good he has it. He goes out on a call about a woman in possession of stolen goods that her incarcerated husband had given her. Lizabeth Scott, best known for her noir vixen roles, plays Mona Stevens, the girl with the loot. Forbes expects to find the kind of girl he thinks would take up with a criminal but instead sees that Mona is a victim of circumstance and never asked for the things her husband stole for her. She's also beautiful and Forbes takes the opportunity to spend the rest of the day with her, conveniently forgetting to mention to her that he's married.Continue Reading
God Bless the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, for he has single-handedly rescued America’s noir heritage from the dustbin of history. Eddie is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit that raises money to preserve old noir films whose surviving negatives are on the verge of being lost forever all so that future generations can enjoy these seedy little tales of B-movie heaven. One recent rescue was of Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, a sweaty, kinky thriller that also serves as a vituperative denunciation of capitalism and its effects on people. Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a pervy cop with a chip on his shoulder and a peeping tom fetish. He snoops around the outside of a stately home after dark while on his beat “perving on the woman” as James Ellroy suitably and salaciously puts it on one of the DVD’s extras. The woman is housewife Susan, a trapped trophy wife stuck pacing the halls of her mansion, in limbo while her husband works nights as a radio DJ. Her husband’s voice fills the house from the radio and gives off an ominous echo to Webb’s creepy spying as Susan never really seems to be alone.
Webb likes what he sees from his pervy perch in the front yard. He wants the life of a well-to-do loafer with an easy job and easier money. He fetishizes Susan’s good looks but also the wealth she has acquired by marrying her absentee husband. Webb and his partner are the cops called when Susan spots the prowler so you know this isn’t going to turn out well. Soon, though, Webb and Susan are spending their nights together and the illicit romance is their escape from their mutual dissatisfaction with life. The murder of the inconvenient husband and its cover-up briefly solves Webb’s problems but eventually his crime catches up with him culminating in a beautifully stark desert showdown between Webb and the police. A pregnant Susan is left behind in a dinky shack, forced to accept that her two timing with a guy like Webb led to her husband's murder.
Born to Kill
Born to Kill is one of the kinkier Noirs out there and it’s slightly ironic considering the director Robert Wise is mostly known for helping to butcher Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons at RKO’s request and directing The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Wise was not an iconoclast like Welles or Robert Aldrich. He was a director most famous for helming big road show musicals and Born to Kill is the polar opposite of such family friendly fare. It’s a fairly sordid tale of obsession, jealousy, and murder. Lawrence Tierney plays the cold blooded killer at the center of things but he’s no match for Claire Trevor as a steely society dame turned on by his brutish exploits. Tierney plays a thoroughly rotten character who kills for kicks but it’s Trevor’s high class vixen who really makes an impression because while she’s just as mean as Tierney’s numbskull thug she’s also got a brain which makes her involvement in his homicidal hi jinks that much more unsettling.
Tierney plays Sam Wild, a suit-clad psychopath who worms his way into the inner circle of a wealthy family, marrying Trevor’s half sister Georgia (Audrey Long) but maintaining a hot n’ heavy flirtation with Helen (Trevor) all the while. Sam shares a filthy apartment with his friend Marty (the personification of low rent sleaze, Elisha Cook Jr.) before moving into the family mansion. When Helen finds out that Sam is a deranged killer with at least two murders to his credit she finds herself protecting him and intimidating people who might be in a position to finger him as a murderer all stemming from the twisted logic of her own infatuation with him.
There has never been a screenplay quite like Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder’s screenplay for their 1950 opus Sunset Blvd. It’s a macabre gothic noir comedy about the ghosts of Hollywood past. It’s one of those films, though a first-string classic, where the myths and back-stage stories are just as memorable as the film itself. For a legendary cynic like Wilder it was his ultimate drubbing of the hand that fed him. For star Gloria Swanson it was the ultimate film comeback (ten times more unlikely than, say, Travolta in Pulp Fiction). And for her co-star William Holden it began a decade of big performances in important films that cemented him as a major actor. In a time when the studios controlled their products as well as their own image with an iron fist, it’s shocking that Sunset Blvd. ever got made.
Narrating from a swimming pool of a rundown mansion, a floating corpse tells his story of how he ended up there. Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) can’t land a new assignment and is on the run from debt collectors. With a flat tire he hides his car in the garage of that rundown mansion. Invited in by the home’s butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), to lend a hand for the funeral of a monkey Joe soon meets the mistress of the house, one-time silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson). She lives with only one foot in reality. Her decrepit house is filled with photos and mementos of her former self from her glory days 30 years earlier. Eventually she employs Joe to write...
Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
Out of the Past
Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.
Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.Continue Reading
The Maltese Falcon
Like John Ford & John Wayne or Scorsese & De Niro, John Huston & Humphrey Bogart's work together as director and star will be forever linked in audiences' subconscious. After years of being a happening screenwriter, Huston got his chance to direct his own adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's crime novel, The Maltese Falcon. The film would help make Bogart a leading man, would lead to a 50-year career for Huston, and set the standard for detective films to come.
Like many detective and crime films of the 1940s, The Maltese Falcon is often improperly lumped in with the Film Noir genre. At best, The Maltese Falcon could be deemed a kick-starter to the genre that actually peaked in the post-WWII years. With the exception of a femme fatale or a detective it has little in common stylistically with the best of Film Noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out Of The Past, etc.). That's not to say that the film (and the book) were not hugely influential, they were.Continue Reading