Saturday, November 23, 2013

NOIRVEMBER: OUT OF THE PAST


OUT OF THE PAST (1947)  Dir. Jacques Tourneur

Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming

One of the reasons I put together my own Noirvember list was frustration. For years I've been attending noir festivals that are constantly stretching the bounds of noir in order to provide fresh content. As a result, programmers often resort to lousy movies that in some way fit the noir bill. I wanted to put together a a set of movies that includes some of the undeniable classics of the genre along with lesser known and lesser seen (by me anyway) entries. I figured watching these classics all in a row might bring some insight that watching them alone wouldn't. This is the insight I've gleaned from my Noirvember festival so far:

"Out of the Past" is the greatest film noir of all time.

Director Jacques Tourneur and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca had perviously collaborated on on the low budget, Val Lewton producer masterpiece "Cat People". "Out of the Past" was an opportunity for them bring the smart and stylish sensibilities of the Lewton films to a project with better actors and a bigger budget. Musuraca's photography in particular is outstanding. It's not lacking in stark, expressionistic source lighting but the style never gets in the way. The lighting isn't an end in and of itself, it's always serving the story and the performances. I think this makes Musuraca's work here superior even to that of DP John Alton (T-Men, Raw Deal). Alton is an undisputed master stylist but his work can occasionally be showy and overwhelm the narrative. That never happens in "Out of the Past."

The cast is perfect. I know I don't need to tell you how great Mitchum is in this movie. It was made for him. The same for Jane Greer. Watching the film this time, it was Kirk Douglas that really impressed me. This movie came along at exactly the right time to take advantage of his talents. He gives an inspired performance in a supporting role that would have been too small for him just a few years later. "Out of the Past" is full of situations like this. The perfect cast, the perfect material and the perfect filmmakers.

Any schmuck or film critic can tell you that "Out of the Past" has all the tropes that define the genre. The femme fatale, doomed protagonist and obviously the past coming back to get you. All that is true. But "Out of the Past" isn't a superficial exercise that ticks boxes on a genre list. It's a movie you care about, not just appreciate.






Sunday, November 17, 2013

NOIRVEMBER: THE DARK CORNER


THE DARK CORNER (1946)   Dir. Henry Hathaway

There are a lot of interesting elements in "The Dark Corner" even if it doesn't add up to a totally successful movie. I can't deny that one of those elements is Lucille Ball. She's doesn't seem entirely comfortable in this kind of dramatic role. This was a few years before she really found her voice as a broad comedy star on television and it shows. But it's definitely interesting to see her out of the usual context.

Joseph MacDonald's photography is a real stand out here. I know I often say the expressionistic visuals aren't mandatory for noir but that doesn't mean I don't love to look at them. MacDonald who also shot "My Darling Clementine", "Call Northside 777" and "The Street With No Name" does an impressive job with his high contrast, yet motivated lighting.

"I'm clean as a peeled egg."

And then there's the dialogue. Look, I'm not going to make a "hard boiled" joke here. I'm not onboard with the puns. But the dialogue in this movie is genuinely bizarre at times. It's often so obtuse that I'm not entirely sure what the characters are trying to express to each other. Does it dampen the entertainment value of this movie? Not on your life. The crazy dialogue is a huge draw here.

The story never comes together in a particularly credible or satisfying way but there are enough elements here to make the film worthwhile.



NOIRVEMBER: SCARLET STREET

SCARLET STREET (1945)   Dir. Fritz Lang

Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea

"Scarlet Street" is exactly the sort of Fritz Lang movie that made me doubt "The Big Heat" would hold up. Still I was curious to revisit it. I'm a sucker for movies that feature artists and the art world of the past, no matter how unrealistic the treatment.

The big problem here is the script. Robinson plays a nebbish clerk with a shrewish wife who becomes involved with a woman of uncertain repute in Greenwich Village. He lets her believe he's a successful painter and she schemes to use him for his money. There's nothing wrong with this on the surface but that's the problem, the movie is all surface. All the characters are one dimensional, exactly what they seem to be. There isn't even any gray area in Robinson deceiving his wife. She's so unrepentantly awful, you can't  really blame him. The script is just too easy.

All these actors are great but the script and direction give them no latitude for subtlety. There are certainly amusing bits but I can't help but think about better performances they've given in better movies.

A film rises or falls depending on the material and in this case...well I think you get the idea.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

NOIRVEMBER: THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS 

1946)

Dir. Lewis Milestone

Starring Barbara Stanwick, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott


I had only seen this once before and remembered it being a mixed bag despite the talent involved. My feelings haven't changed. 

The core story here of Van Heflin's character returning to the town he escaped as a kid and only finding various disaffected characters, unable to move on, is compelling. Unfortunately, the love triangle he finds himself entangled in with Stanwick and Douglas is much less so. It doesn't have anywhere that interesting to go so it must resolve itself with silly, unmotivated operatics. All these actors are great but all have better showcases in better movies. Lizabeth Scott does distinguish herself here though. This is one of her better performances and the interplay between her and Heflin is the highlight of the film for me. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

HAN SOLO SKETCH


NOIRVEMBER: DETOUR

DETOUR (1945)  Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage

Is Edgar Ulmer's "Detour" a great film? I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that. 

I saw "Detour" for the first time as part of a film noir festival at Film Forum in New York City when I was 17. I knew nothing about it going in and on first viewing took as nothing more than ridiculous. This festival was really important for me as a film fan. I'd seen may classic films on VHS in high school but that summer Film Forum gave me my first sustained exposure to noir. I went to every double feature. Most of those other movies seemed far superior to a poverty row cheapie like Detour with it's chintzy production values, stilted acting and unintentionally hilarious voiceover. This was no Double Indemnity!

But "Detour" stayed with me in a way that many slicker films have not. I've seen it many times over the years and have decided that all it's apparent flaws add up to genius. Somehow this movie can be both unintentionally absurd and a perfect encapsulation of the noir ethos. 

Al Roberts: "That's life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you."

Director Edgar G. Ulmer was a German emigre like Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmack. In fact this group co-directed the German film "People on Sunday" and each went on to make defining films of the classic noir era. In the US, Ulmer directed the supremely stylish Universal Horror "The Black Cat" but apparently he wasn't so good at playing the Hollywood game. He learned the hard way that it's not wise to have an affair with the producer's wife, especially if that producer is the nephew of the head of the studio. Ulmer was from then on banished to the lowest rung of the motion picture business: Poverty Row. But occasionally Ulmer was able to employ what he learned from working in the German theater and with F.W. Murnau to supply a style that took advantage of his limited resources. Detour is easily the best example of that. Who needs expensive opticals when you can just pan around the room throwing the shot in and out of focus? 

Lead actor Tom Neal can best be described as wooden though he does bring a schlubby charm to Al Roberts. Okay, charm isn't the right word. Off screen Neal who started as an amateur boxer lead a troubled life on the bottom rung of Hollywood. He was allegedly blackballed from the industry after beating the shit out of actor Franchot Tone. He later went to prison for manslaughter...manslaughtering his wife, that is. He died of a heart attack soon after he was released in 1972.

AL Roberts: "Man, she looked like she'd been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world." 

Yes, this is how the movie actually describes Vera, it's female lead played by Ann Savage. You need to see this film for her performance alone. There is nothing else like it in movies. Savage had a brief acting career in the mid forties. I saw her at a revival screening of Detour in the early 2000's and she was charming with great stories to tell. She was hired late in life by brilliant Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin to play his mother in "My Winnipeg" which makes an excellent bookend to Detour. 

I've read Martin Goldsmith's screenplay for Detour and was surprised to find that Ulmer wasn't elevating substandard material the way he worked magic with his budgetary restrictions. The script is excellent and far more nuanced than the final film would leave you to believe. It struck me that one could have made a much higher class "A" noir out of Goldsmith's original draft. But would that really have been a better film? If it wasn't the crazy, grungy, sometimes unintentionally funny film we have, it's certainly possible that we wouldn't be talking about it today. 

Is Detour a great film? I'm going to go with yes. The world needed to see Ann Savage's Vera. 


Al Roberts: "Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."

Monday, November 11, 2013

NOIRVEMBER: DOUBLE INDEMNITY


DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)  Dir. Billy Wilder

Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwick, Edward G. Robinson

Billy Wilder's third feature as a Hollywood director is also one of the greatest movies ever made. I love classic era film noir, it's really my favorite genre. But as much as anything, seeing Double Indemnity again makes me want to ditch my Noirvember list and just watch all the rest of of Wilder's films. He was one of the few true geniuses of movies. There's a cynicism that pervades his work that perfectly defines noir. Yet that same sensibility is found in his comedies and straight dramas. It's not just toughness and cynicism though, it's a cutting insight into people that he's able to bring across in his characters, no matter the genre. I have to credit Wilder's co-writer's too. Here it's legendary novelist Raymond Chandler and though they supposedly couldn't stand each other there's no evidence of this on screen.

I keep saying that Noir isn't about the surface style, it's about the dark characters and if that's what you're looking for, Double Indemnity is your movie. So much has been written about this film and it's so influential, there's probably not much I can add. See it if you haven't already. See it if you haven't lately. Just watch this movie.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

NOIRVEMBER: LAURA

LAURA (1944) Dir. Otto Preminger

Starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson


This is really one of the greats. I've seen the picture many times but like a few others on my Noirvember list I couldn't resist revisiting it.

As a director, Otto Preminger wasn't exactly know for his light touch. By all accounts he was nothing less than a screaming autocrat who bullied cast and crew to get his way. And in a lot of his films I think his heavy hand shows. But not Laura. Here he does an elegant job of portraying a group that we come to realize are morally bankrupt sociopaths. Like Fritz Lang's American films, there's little evidence of  German Expressionist lighting here. The darkness is in the hearts of the characters, right where it belongs. That's what noir is about.

It's nearly impossible to imagine more perfect casting for the title character than Gene Tierney. She was amazingly beautiful but there was something else. She projects an indefinable quality makes us absolutely understand why everyone in the film is obsessed with her. Her casting is the strongest storytelling tool at Preminger's disposal. But the rest of the cast is excellent as well, particularly Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker. On top of all this you get an excellent script with one of the best twists in any movie and David Raskin's brilliant score.

I can't go without mentioning all the ties to one of my other obsessions: David Lynch and Mark Frost's "Twin Peaks." LAURA Palmer. A detective falls in love with the girl whose murder he's investigating. Waldo is the mynah bird. Lydecker is the veterinarian. All right, that's enough. I'm being indulgent.

Just see this movie if you haven't already!

Friday, November 8, 2013

NOIRVEMBER: I WAKE UP SCREAMING

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) Dir. Bruce Humberstone

Starring Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carol Landis and Laird Cregar.

I had low expectations for this pre-war proto-noir, but despite some shortcomings it really delivered in the entertainment and style department. And that style is slathered on with a palette knife. Released the same year as "Citizen Kane" and one year before "Cat People", "I Wake Up Screaming" boasts plenty of imported German Expressionist lighting that would later be so closely associated with post-war noir. 

The story is hampered a bit by the overenthusiastic use of flashbacks and a pat wrap-up but Mature and Grable's charming performances carry it along.  Another stand out is Laird Cregar who was excellent in John Brahm's "Hangover Square". He was an interesting actor who died too young. Elisha Cook Jr. gives a great oddball turn here as well but he's a bright spot in any movie.

Is this really noir? I don't think so. It lacks the existential doom that all true noir needs. Noir has nothing to with expressionist lighting. Noir isn't about big shadows, it's the dark content that counts. That said, "I Wake Up Screaming" is still a lot of fun and I recommend checking it out. 

NOIRVEMBER: THE BIG HEAT

THE BIG HEAT (1953) Dir. Fritz Lang

Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando and Lee Marvin.

"The Big Heat" was an early favorite of mine when I first became a noir devotee as a teen. I saw it several times into my twenties but hadn't revisited until recently. It had receded in my mind, probably because so few of director Fritz Lang's other post war american movies impressed me. Lang's other fifties movies like "Human Desire" from the next year (also with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame)tended toward the flat footed and ham handed, often so lacking in style they just looked bad. 

It turns out my reservations about Lang were unfounded when it comes to "The Big Heat". This is a tough picture in all the best ways. The pivotal twist that sets Ford on his dark road is just as compelling as I remembered. Shocking, even. Ford gives such a credibly gritty performance that you'd never guess he was previously known for lighter roles. It's no surprise that Lee Marvin holds the screen even in this early supporting role. But the real star here is Gloria Grahame. The arc of her character in this film extraordinary for the fifties. In the final tally, she's the only character who's willing to do whatever it takes, not Ford. And that's just damn exciting. 

Like Lang's other fifties films, "The Big Heat" isn't stylish in the expressionist way usually associated with the classic noir era. But in this instance the flat, direct approach only enhances the impact of the story. And when it comes down to it, the story is the what impresses the most here. Lang was a capable director when he needed to be but like so many others, he needs a great script to make a great film. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

NOIRVEMBER!


We're planning on revisiting several Film Noirs from the classic era over the course of this month. Here's a list films we're planning to watch. We were inspired by a re-watch of Lang's The Big Heat but now the plan is to go back to earlier noirs and move forward in time. Every movie on this list isn't perfect but a few are among the best films ever made.

Follow along if you like:


The Big Heat (1952) Dir. Fritz Lang

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) Dir. Bruce Humberstone

Laura (1944) Dir. Otto Preminger

Double Indemnity (1944) Dir. Billy Wilder

Detour (1945) Dir. Edgar Ulmer

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Dir. Lewis Milestone

Scarlet Street (1946) Dir. Fritz Lang

The Dark Corner (1946) Dir. Henry Hathaway

Out of the Past (1947) Dir. Jacques Tourneur

Nightmare Alley (1947) Dir. Edmond Goulding

Born to Kill (1947) Dir. Robert Wise

Raw Deal (1948) Dir. Anthony Mann

The Lady From Shanghi (1948) Dir. Orson Welles

Force of Evil (1948) Dir. Abraham Polonsky

Criss Cross (1948) Dir. Robert Siodmak

The Window (1949) Ted Tetzlaff

Gun Crazy (1949) Joseph H. Lewis

In A Lonely Place (1950) Dir. Nicholas Ray

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Dir. John Huston

Night and the City (1950) Dir. Jules Dassin

On Dangerous Ground (1952) Dir. Nicholas Ray

The Hitch-hiker (1953) Dir. Ida Lupino

Pickup on South Street (1953) Dir. Samuel Fuller

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Dir. Robert Aldrich


Rififi (1955) Dir. Jules Dassin


Touch of Evil (1958) Dir. Orson Welles


I may add a few more. We'll see how it goes.