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
The Woman in the Window
Have you ever had a dream where you committed a horrible crime or just got into some really big trouble and then wake up and for a few moments actually think it really happened? That is a terrible feeling. My first impulse is to make a contingency plan for what I’m going to do next. There is nothing like the relief of realizing it was just a dream. Your sense of identity, your subconscious, and your grasp on reality are all kind of in flux in that momentary state. I find that fascinating—the way our minds play tricks on us.
I remember once seeing an episode of a crime show where real footage was shown of the interrogation of a 13-year old boy after his sister was found murdered. The boy learned of the murder from them. The detectives kept grilling him for hours. All they told him was that his teenage sister was found murdered and they knew he did it. They said they found the murder weapon—a knife with dried blood on it with his fingerprints all over it. At first he pleaded that he didn’t know what they were talking about. He pleaded his innocence loudly and repeatedly; the tears were streaming down his face. But after a few hours he started to question his own memory of things and he became much more subdued. Finally he confessed that he did murder his sister because of some latent resentment over something in their past. They had convinced him of something a few hours before he knew to be untrue and they got a confession out of him. He supplied them with details as to how he did it. As it turns out, the boy didn’t murder his sister and the detectives were sued by the boy’s parents who had no knowledge of what they had planned to say to him.Continue Reading
In A Lonely Place
First, there’s the title. Has any movie title ever sounded so vulnerable? And that the film about a man "in a lonely place" was played by America’s hero, Humphrey Bogart, added undeniable pathos to the proceedings. Movie stars have always been confused with who they played in the films that made them famous, and after High Sierra and Casablanca Bogart would be forever known as the world weary tough guy with a heart of gold; the cynical romantic who does the right thing in the end who generations of men have wanted to emulate. Playing an emotionally wounded misanthrope with possibly psychotic tendencies was a risk for him, but in the words of Louise Brooks it was the closest performance to the real Bogart that he ever played. In her memoir of sorts, Lulu In Hollywood, she writes about how the Bogart she knew was an insecure actor forever on the sidelines of productions he didn’t star in. When the light and magic clicked to make him a star in High Sierra he became a legend henceforth and he took to acting the part in real life. But, according to her at least, it wasn’t until playing the embittered Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place that the myth and the actor coalesced into something resembling his darker, more emotionally insecure self.
In A Lonely Place is ostensibly a murder mystery, but what haunts isn’t really the murder or even the possibility that Bogart’s character killed someone. Instead it’s the way Dix’s good qualities are forever doomed to be overshadowed by his alienating and self-destructing tendencies. He has good friends around him who, even in the face of a murder investigation where he is a suspect, refuse to give up on him. But his insecurities and "artistic temperament" wear those around him down to the point where he really is totally alone. There’s no real lesson to In A Lonely Place. In another less complicated thriller Dix would be the villain whose downfall signals the triumph of societal values over the chaos caused by anti-social malcontents. But this is a film with no solution to the problem of Dix Steele, just a melancholic depiction of a certain type of man whose great curse is to be eternally misunderstood.Continue Reading
The Big Heat
Film noir is a style, genre, atmosphere, whatever, often synonymous with a dizzying amount of plot twists, shadowy visuals, and double and triple crosses interwoven into spider web of a plot. But in some of the most memorable examples of film noir certain filmmakers took a more, well, direct approach. The Big Heat is a lean, stripped down revenge story without the murky lighting and wafting smoke of rotten glamour that permeates many a classic film noir. The visual style is flat, the plot is relatively straightforward, but make no mistake, it’s a film that pulsates with paranoid intensity. Lang would return over and over to the trio of themes best spelled out in the title song of his weird western, Rancho Notorious: “murder, hatred and revenge.” He liked to chronicle the way that an obsessive need for revenge can turn men into that which they despise.
Before Dirty Harry there was The Big Heat’s Sgt. Bannion, an honest cop in a nameless city in the stranglehold of corruption at every level. Bannion doesn’t mince words and takes relish in stepping on the toes of every person he’s not supposed to mess with. A police captain dies under mysterious circumstances. His mistress meets Bannion for a drink and tells him she thinks he was murdered. This sparks Bannion’s investigation into a conspiracy that ensnares almost everyone in power surrounding him. When the mob retaliates in the most horrifically personal way imaginable Bannion’s crusade takes on a deranged quality. He’ll stop at nothing until he takes down Italian dandy crime boss Mike Lagana any way he can. When a ditzy girlfriend of one of Lagana’s thugs decides to help Bannion she becomes just one in a line of many victims whose personal sacrifice for Bannion’s crusade means almost nothing to him.Continue Reading
The Reckless Moment
What do a famous film director with a deep appreciation for Korean food and a handful of fellow middle aged customers who shop at Amoeba every single day have in common? They love the import DVD section. The import section is reserved for DVDs from different parts of the world that have different region coding from U.S. DVDs. If you have a region free DVD player you can watch them. What is surprising is how many film titles are only available as imports. 1984, Barfly, and The Magnificent Ambersons are just a few of the titles that either went out of print or were never released on DVD in the U.S. and can only be bought relatively cheaply as imports. Cinephilia can be a lonely and expensive calling made more frustrating by limiting what one watches to what the studios dictate as permissible for one to purchase. I begin this review extolling the virtues of Amoeba’s import DVD section simply because without it I would never have been able to see The Reckless Moment on DVD, which would have been a real shame because it’s one of the best thrillers released during the heyday of American film noir and perhaps one of the strongest feminist films I’ve ever seen. The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucy Harper, an upper middle class Californian housewife who looks after her teenage daughter and pre-teen son while her husband is perpetually away on business. Between her kids and her father-in-law she doesn’t seem to have any time to herself. Although her station in life is a privileged one, with all the perks such a position affords—hired help and a huge house to name but two—she is completely trapped by her situation without seemingly a moment to devote to herself. Her entire identity seems to be subsumed by motherhood. She is perpetually photographed in the film with the silhouette of her home’s staircase and other furnishings casting prison bar-like shadows across her. This isn’t a Douglas Sirk tearjerker about the spiritual emptiness of white American privilege (well, not completely), but rather a classic noir thriller, so let me get to the part of the story where someone gets murdered.
Bennett’s rebellious daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks, is stepping out with a sleazy older guy whom Lucy knows is all wrong for her daughter. Bea is in art school which is shorthand in the film for being surrounded by all the wrong people. Mother and daughter fight but Bea refuses to budge. Lucy takes matters into her own hands by traveling to a seamy part of L.A. from her idyllic lakefront property to confront Bea’s boyfriend, Ted. She is determined to protect her family at all costs, and Ted turns out to be just as much of a lowlife as she thought he was. Later though, when Ted winds up dead just steps away from their beautiful home, Lucy, without knowing what exactly happened, must figure out how to dispose of the corpse and keep her daughter’s name out of the murder investigation. To complicate matters further, a couple of blackmailers turn up demanding $5,000 for Bea’s love letters to Ted which were used as collateral by Ted for a debt he never repaid. When asked by one of the blackmailers why she is doing so much on behalf of her daughter, Lucy looks him in the eye and offers up being a mother as the only reason necessary.Continue Reading
Sweet Smell of Success
I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”
Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.Continue Reading
Anthony Mann had a storied career as a director of westerns, many of which starred Jimmy Stewart (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur). He directed one of the most ecstatically bizarre examples of the genre—The Furies starring the great Barbara Stanwyck. But before he made his name with westerns and sprawling epics such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, he is best remembered as one of the original progenitors of the noir style. Mann made some of the most classic films associated with noir in the late 1940s and, for my money, nothing beats his shadow-drenched masterpiece Raw Deal. With its rich expressionist visuals and eerie Theremin score, Raw Deal is a poetic depiction of a world in perpetual twilight.
Dennis O’Keefe —one of those beautifully rough hewn actors in the Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden mold—plays Joe Sullivan, a guy doing time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit (as a favor to a local crime syndicate boss with the promise of $50,000 coming his way if he plays along). Joe’s girl Pat is played by Claire Trevor, who provides a haunting voiceover throughout the film in a whispered voice that suggests she’s mourning Joe before he’s gone. She would do anything for him, and he is happy to let her. She shows up for a prison visit with information about how she’s going to spring him from jail. Rick, the crime boss of Corkscrew Alley, a.k.a the bad part of town, has engineered a scheme to bust Joe out of jail and have him snuffed out before he can claim his 50 Gs, but all Pat knows is if things go as planned he’ll be out of the big house and back in her arms that night. Joe has another woman in his life complicating his relationship with Pat, though. Marsha Hunt plays Ann, his case worker, a prim brunette to Pat’s life-hardened blonde, who believes that the real Joe Sullivan is a decent guy who deserves a second chance in life if he agrees to play by the rules. But Joe never had much luck from the start and he has no intention of going straight now. At dusk he makes his escape, barely outrunning prison guard gunfire to a waiting car and, once inside, Pat and Joe make their getaway. But before they can get out on the lam Joe insists they first take Ann hostage and force her to play along until they get to the hideout (which is really a set up) that Rick has arranged for Joe.Continue Reading