Ace In The Hole
Though it doesn’t revolve around a murder or a heist, Ace in the Hole remains a definitive film noir. Bitter, caustic, and unremittingly dark, it prophesied our age of journalistic madness as it focused on a literal “media circus” developed by a story-hungry press.
In a virtuoso performance that equals his turn in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-heels newsman who desperately takes a job at a tank-town Albuquerque paper. He stumbles on the headline of a lifetime after the owner of a roadside diner is trapped in an abandoned mineshaft while hunting for Indian artifacts. Envisioning a Pulitzer Prize and a return to the big time in New York, Tatum ruthlessly controls the story, befriending the terrified victim (Richard Benedict), romancing his slatternly wife (Jan Sterling), and cynically working local authorities and big-city editors. Then things start to come apart…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
Blast of Silence
If Albert Camus had made a film noir, it would have been very much like Allen Baron’s little-seen 1961 feature Blast of Silence. This low-budget jewel, which enjoyed a critical renaissance after a 1990 screening at the Munich Film Festival, is less a thriller than it is an existential exploration. In many ways, it anticipated Martin Scorsese’s equally dark New York drama Taxi Driver by a decade.
Writer-director Baron had originally cast Peter Falk as hit man Frankie Bono, but wound up playing the part himself after Falk took his career-making role in Murder Inc. Resembling a less feral George C. Scott, Baron is extremely effective as the solitary, dead-eyed assassin, who arrives in New York City at Christmastime to eliminate a troublesome small-time mobster. After a chance meeting, the lonely, embittered killer is drawn to a girl from his past (Molly McCarthy). But he still has a contract to fulfill, and his world begins to unravel as he stalks his prey.Continue Reading
It bugs me when I go to see an old film on the big screen and people laugh at what they find to be anachronistic or hokey. Aside from it being disrespectful it also strikes me as an incredibly pretentious thing to do. I remember having a screening of Night of the Hunter completely ruined when a trio of teenage dorks insisted on laughing at every other line of dialogue in the film as if they were so much cooler than everyone on screen. Who in their right mind could think they were cooler than Robert Mitchum?! We assume that we must be somehow more evolved than generations before us but, with few exceptions, evidence to the contrary abounds. It can be amusing to note how filmmakers had to contort their films to fit the narrow confines of acceptability as defined by the Production Code, but to insistently laugh with smug satisfaction at every little thing in an old film that strikes our ears as the least bit foreign is to loudly and desperately proclaim one’s own insecurities. The laughing-at-old-films-to-make-yourself-look-smart phenomenon is so all prevailing that I barely notice it anymore except by its absence. This happened when I saw Brighton Rock at the New Beverly here in L.A. this past weekend. It is one of the funniest, blackest noirs ever and the audience laughed at what was meant to be funny and that was enough. It was revelatory to experience a film from 1947 as it was meant to be seen—at a theater with an audience that was completely seduced into unselfconscious enjoyment by the film’s dark, spiky humor. Brighton Rock was a novel before it was a movie and it remains probably my favorite novel of all time. Graham Greene stuck to a completely English milieu for this early gangster story set in the seaside town of Brighton with its pleasure piers and seedy amusements. A teenage boy with an acne problem and a very bad temper named Pinkie is the leader of a low rent gang of hoods. Pinkie and his middle aged cohorts kill a newspaper man from London who is working in Brighton for the day because of unfinished business related to his nefarious extracurricular activities. The murder scene is different from how it plays out in the book but it’s the rare example of a movie adaptation with inventive visuals that manage to artfully elaborate on the themes of the book even when straying from the book’s plot. Pinkie is evil incarnate. He wears a cheap suit and carries a razor blade as a weapon and only seems happy when terrifying other people. He is a virgin and is repulsed by sex but plagued by self doubt over his lack of life experience. When a young waitress named Rose becomes a potential liability for Pinkie’s gang he sets out to court her with the plan of marrying her so that she can’t testify against him. He seems relieved when he sees a rosary in her purse and his eyes light up as he talks about the certainty of eternal damnation and torment even as he seems more skeptical about the possibility of any alternative.
As previously mentioned, Brighton Rock is one of the great film noir dark comedies and in Pinkie it has one of the great villains of cinema and in Ida Arnold, one of the most absurd protagonists. Ida is a classic British creation—a soft-around-the-edges kind of gal with a hearty laugh. When she’s not working on her "entertainment" career she’s usually found at the pub drinking port and singing sentimental old music hall songs with her randomly assembled group of male friends. Ida met Fred just before he died and she is obsessed with finding out what happened to him. Soon Ida is causing problems for Pinkie as her rambling investigation threatens to ensnare him.Continue Reading
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
Film students across the world come to be familiar with Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour because it's one of the first examples of the "noir" genre; it makes clever use of its low budget and it offers a classic, if simplistic, story on how men and women can manipulate each other into horrendous actions. While all of these are the reasons why the film still holds up today, it's also more fun to think of Detour as the 1940s equivalent of Stranger Than Paradise or Clerks. Super low-budget and completely pioneering in its time for depicting human behavior, this is a film that can still prove to people that quality films can be made outside of Hollywood.
The story opens up on a grizzled and paranoid-looking Al Roberts, who staggers into a diner somewhere in the barren remoteness of Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles. He reacts harshly when somebody in the diner plays a particular song on the jukebox and, after apologizing and being nearly kicked out, he drinks his coffee and begins to tell his story over narration.Continue Reading
Dirty Pretty Things
Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood
– M.I.A. “Galang”
In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.Continue Reading
If you know nothing about film noir, start with Double Indemnity. This classic by director Billy Wilder was among the first bona fide pictures in the postwar genre, and it contains all the essential elements – lust, greed, violence, betrayal – that animated this wondrous American style during its great epoch of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Based on a novel by hardboiled fiction forefather James M. Cain, the biting script was co-authored by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, creator of detective Philip Marlowe. The brutal, sleazy tale is recounted (in traditional voiceover style) by canny but weak-willed Los Angeles insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is ensnared by the scheming trollop Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The pair hatch a complicated plot to murder her wealthy husband and collect a large double indemnity insurance policy. But they don’t reckon on the acute intuition of Neff’s friend and co-worker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose “little man” in the pit of his stomach tells him something isn’t quite right.Continue Reading
“We were born to tread the Earth as angels, to seek out heaven this side of the sky. But they who race alone shall stumble in the dark and fall from grace. Then love alone can make the fallen angel rise, for only two together can enter Paradise.”
The above quote has quite a bit of significance when uttered in the film Fallen Angel. It suggests a theme that had not really been explored much in cinema by 1945, and remains as sparse today: a man falls from grace when he betrays his betrothed, and their bond is the only thing that can redeem his wickedness. It's not uncommon for this to be something that occurs in a movie, but rarely is the man given the opportunity to make amends for his foul actions.Continue Reading
The more one understands about their culture the easier it is to recognize the arts and entertainment of their time. I had always enjoyed watching Gilda for reasons that couldn't exactly be pinpointed until now. There was the impression that it wasn't just her sultry and thrill-seeking ways, or her liberation. It was her libido, actually, and the unapologetic way that the principles behind the production code in movies were instigated. And with style that was most-impressive and done by the likes of Jean Louis, just as any other big budget wonder. It's as if post-Depression a few filmmakers were asking themselves an important question: “Why keep pretending the dark edges of life don't exist?” In asking, it is as though life was breathed into this thought and the result was Film Noir.
This isn't to say that the majority of films in that era were not of great wit and integrity. Surely the way that these restrictions were handled by the likes of Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Leo McCarey was masterful and deserving of adoration. The same can be said of the glitz of Busby Berkeley, providing a much-needed solace for a body of people who were in despair. Still, there are many things about Vidor's esteemed classic that place it far ahead of the others in terms of sophistication. This is due to how human and flawed the characters are and the fact that it's a splendid battle of the sexes. For anyone with experience or imagination in the matter, I assure you that it surpasses even some contemporary works.Continue Reading