Thursday, September 16, 2010

Noir, round 2

I decided not to wait for another 5, since I've written more than usual about these three.

#6 Key Largo (directed by John Huston)
So after a week off, I continued with my noir quest tonight with the less famous of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart noir collaborations, Key Largo. Bogie has long been one of my favorite actors, and this is one of his best performances. He had one of the most emotionally expressive faces I've seen, and we see so much play out in his eyes and his facial "body language" as his disillusioned WWII vet Maj. Frank McCloud struggles with discovering a reason to fight, in this case against famous gangster Johnny Rocco, deliciously played by Edward G. Robinson, who is keeping a small hotel full of people hostage as a small hurricane passes through.

Playing as a sort of oppositely cast version of The Petrified Forest (an underrated sort of pre-noir which served as Bogie's big break as the gangster holding people hostage, it was also the movie that made me fall in love with Bette Davis), Key Largo plays out more fascinatingly with Bogart and Robinson playing a sort of cat-and-mouse/battle of wits game that plays out with about as high a body count as a claustrophobic movie like this can manage.

An all-star cast that also includes Lionel Barrymore and Lauren Bacall (in her last screen pairing with her husband), it's "Queen of noir" Claire Trevor who deservedly won an Oscar for her role as Robinson's abused and alcoholic former love Gaye Dawn. In a powerful scene where Robinson forces Gaye to sing a song like she used to in the club in exchange for a drink, Trevor is able to gain the audiences sympathy, as well as Bogart's, by singing a few lines of a song about an abused woman's continuing love for her man. There is not a shred of the same "Iceberg of a woman" Trevor played in entry #5 Born to Kill where she was a woman slowly descending into moral wasteland, here she is a broken woman who finds the smallest shred of self-worth, and using it to help the oppressed group escape from Johnny Rocco's grasp.

Key Largo is the best movie yet on the quest, and gears me up to continue on. Also, Key Largo contains what is, so far, the single best shot in any of the movies, the penultimate shot with Lauren Bacall throwing open the shutters to see light pouring into the dark hotel. Sadly, I couldn't find a screen cap of it on a quick search.

#7 Crossfire (directed by Edward Dmytryk)

So here we have a message film disguised as a b-movie noir thriller, one that managed to get nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Crossfire's message is about anti-Semitism, especially in the aftermath of WWII. It stars three Robert's - Mitchum, Ryan, and Young, all of whom are good. Mitchum, as is too often the case, doesn't have enough screen time, but that's more of a personal complaint, since I can't get enough of the guy. The movie, although getting a little didactic towards the end, carefully wraps its message up in the procedural of finding out what happened (from the different sources) the night a Jewish man was murdered after meeting 4 soldiers in a bar. The "whodunnit" aspect is fairly benign, since it's obvious from the first few minutes who the killer is, but Dmytryk still plays things close to the vest storytelling wise, thankfully without ever feeling like he's trying act like we don't know the killers identity.

Robert Ryan, whom I've seen in a bunch of movies but still only think about The Wild Bunch when I see him, is effective as the racist killer. He's just civil enough to have us believe he wouldn't be the immediate suspect if the evidence didn't point to him (which it doesn't). Mitchum is, well, Mitchum. Wish he'd been the inspector played by Robert Young, but Young is good in the role too, expertly delivering the least subtle aspect of the movie in the customary "summing up the theme of the movie" speech just before the climax.

I don't know that I would've looked at this movie and thought "Oscar material", but it did effectively deal with the issue of anti-Semitism, and about 5 months before the more famous Gentleman's Agreement. Overall, it was quite good, and the cinematography nicely noirish, but I would just call it solidly good rather than exceptional. Not that that's a bad thing. I'm 7 movies into this quest and have yet to have a stinker, so I'm just glad for what I've got.

NOTE: After some thinking I've come to the conclusion that my opening sentence is incorrect. The movie never really engages with the anti-Semitism theme, and doesn't really give us anything more than a "racism is bad" kind of treatment. So it's really not a message movie disguised as a noir, but a noir disguised as a message movie.

#8 He Walked by Night (directed by Alfred L. Werker, uncredited direction by Anthony Mann)

Now here's some noir! Serving as the blueprint for Dragnet's use of real police files, and having that shows creator and star Jack Webb in a small role, He Walked by Night is a fascinating police procedural noir with some striking cinematography, terrific performances, and a tightly wound script that never lets up, even if it only lasts 79 minutes.

Richard Basehart stars as a killer whom the LAPD are frustratingly searching for, more feverishly after he kills a couple of cops. Basehart had several notable roles throughout his career, including The Fool in Fellini's La Strada and Ishmael in John Huston's Moby Dick, both unseen by me, and he's fantastic in the cold role of Roy, confounding the police at every turn with his sophisticated tactics, and his ability to stay always one step ahead of them. He's matched by the quiet determination given to the cops coming after him, notably Scott Brady's Sgt. Brennan, and Roy Roberts' Capt. Breen, both men of action who're being kept in the dark by the ingenious criminal, but working harder every day to bring him down.

Credited to journeyman filmmaker Alfred L. Werker, but directed at least in part by the legendary Anthony Mann (reports conflict on how much), the calling card of the movie has to be its finale, a flashlight lit chase through the L.A. storm drain system that shames the more famous, and very similar, chase at the end of The Third Man, released the following year. The wonderful suspense of the chase is heightened by what we already know of the killer's knowledge of the underground system, and his preparation of just such a scenario. The little details adding up into a tremendous sequence that's the best I've run across in my quest. The photography of the picture overall should be commended as well, shot by master cinematographer John Alton (An American in Paris, The Big Combo, the movie I took the top screenshot from in my first noir entry, by the way), the finale is not the only memorably photographed sequence (although I can't impress upon you how much I loved that finale), we get many great shots of faces lit by the light shining through the blinds, lonely intersections broken only by a single street lamp, and many more.

I didn't really know what to expect going into He Walked by Night, although the quote on the back of the DVD case from genius filmmaker Errol Morris calling it "a gritty masterpiece" certainly piqued my interest. What I got was quite easily my favorite movie of the quest to this point, and one of my new favorite movies of the 1940's (a marvelous decade for cinema). This is definitely one I'll be returning to many times in the years to come, for its story and performances, and obviously for its remarkable photography which absolutely epitomizes noir.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Noir, round 1

I've long had a fascination with crime and noir movies. I have a few noir boxsets that a friend of mine gave me and decided to watch one of the movies, which led me to watch another one, which made me decide to make a little movie quest out of it. So these are the first 5 noirs that I've seen on my new found quest.

#1 They Live by Night (directed by Nicholas Ray)

A great little noir with Farley Granger, directed by Rebel Without a Cause's Nicholas Ray. I liked the awkward innocence of the central couple, and how they try to get away from his criminal past. The ending is heartbreaking and one of the best in all of noir, I think. It's a terrific movie with some good photography and performances. Especially not bad for supposedly being Ray's debut (although the Internet Movie Database lists other credits previous). Sadly, I don't think he ever topped it.

#2 Crime Wave (directed by Andre de Toth)

It’s an exquisitely shot, terrifically acted, tightly wound noir that is told with an astonishing economy of storytelling. It’s only 73 minutes long! How many directors these days could say everything they needed to say in a movie under 80 minutes? Seems like more than ever no one can tell their story in under 2 hours. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. Sterling Hayden and Gene Nelson are wonderful in the leading roles, with some really great supporting work from Charles Buchinsky (who would later change his last name to Bronson), Phyllis Kirk, Timothy Carey (in a tiny role) and especially Jay Novello as the misanthropic animal lover Dr. Hessler.

But, to me, the star of the movie was the gorgeous cinematography from the too little talked about Bert Glennon, who’d worked with De Toth before on House of Wax, as well as shooting legendary movies like John Ford’s Stagecoach, Rio Grande, and Young Mr. Lincoln (among others), Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On, Joseph von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress, Michael Curtiz’s The Dive Bombers, and Cecil B. DeMille’s original take on The Ten Commandments.

#3 The Big Steal (directed by Don Siegel)

In what is the lightest toned noir I’ve ever seen, last night’s entry into the quest was The Big Steal. Robert Mitchum as Duke is his typically wonderful self, funny, charming, and pretty much just one of the coolest guys ever. Jane Greer, re-teaming with Mitchum two years after their classic Out of the Past, is also very good as Duke’s Spanish speaking foil Joan. Both have been wronged by Patric Knowles’ Fiske, and they’re chasing after him, while Duke is being pursued by his military superior (William Bendix’s Capt. Blake). All are being watched by Inspector General Ortega (deliciously played by Ramon Novarro).

I expected some twists and turns to the plot, (like maybe Fiske didn’t steal the money after all, but someone else did!) but it’s fairly straightforward save for a tiny twist near the end. Mitchum and Greer have some nice chemistry and are really what carries the movie through its short 71-minute run time. Siegel (Clint Eastwood's directorial mentor) doesn’t really do much of interest, although there’s nothing really wrong with the movie, there’s not much that’s great about it. It even ends sunnily! Crime Wave had a happy ending as far as noir was concerned, but The Big Steal is a traditional Hollywood ending. Not that there’s inherently anything wrong with that, but to go in expecting noir, and be presented with a straightforward crime/comedy was a little disappointing. Still, it is a good movie, just not particularly noir.

#4 The Narrow Margin (directed by Robert Fleischer)

Another pleasant surprise, The Narrow Margin is a tautly directed gem with some nice work from all of its actors. Its Oscar-nominated script is superbly written noir, with great character driven suspense, and plenty of little twists and turns to keep us on our toes. The Hitchcockian game of cat-and-mouse is perfectly played out through the long train ride to L.A., and we're not the only ones who are kept in the dark. Just a couple of years before he made 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Richard Fleischer makes tremendous use of hand held camerawork to make the train ride seem both an endurance test for our characters, and a claustrophobic nightmare for our hero's nerves.

After looking over his resume, Charles McGraw has been in some movies I've seen, but I didn't remember him. So I was happily surprised by his terrifically noir leading role. His hardened face and gruff voice suit the genre perfectly, and the way he pulls off the films terrifically confined fight scene was delightful. Jacqueline White was another actor I didn't remember ever seeing, but her Ann Sinclair was a nice performance, ably countering McGraw's. "Queen of the B's" Marie Windsor was a more familiar face, and she also does some good work bringing to life her irritating character and causing quite a bit of tension due to her characters seeming lack of emotion.

So, another good watch, and another quick one (only 71 minutes) that was expertly put together with its economical storytelling and confining camerawork.

#5 Born to Kill (directed by Robert Wise)

Laurence Tierney wasn't exactly known for his lightness of tone, and never was that more on display than in Robert Wise's black as coal noir Born to Kill. Wise, his days as a Val Lewton director still fresh, gives the picture a wonderfully dark look, a scene with Tierney walking up a shadowy staircase given as much care as a late night showdown in the sand. Claire Trevor, no stranger to noir, is terrific as Helen, our slowly conscience-losing female lead. "An iceberg of a woman" as one character describes her. And Elisha Cook, Jr. (who sadly meets the end here that his characters typically met) does some very good work, maybe the best of his career, especially working alongside Tierney's out of control murderer, Sam.

And it is Tierney that I'll most remember from Born to Kill. His killer is overly confident, overly jealous, and overly violent, with a small streak of pride that tends to be the starting point of his outbursts. Within the captivating first 10 minutes, he's charmed Trevor's Helen without saying a word, been wronged by the beautiful Audrey Long's Georgia, and subsequently beaten Georgia and her date to death with his bare hands. It's a dark opening to a dark movie, one that yet again shows that Robert Wise had a ton of versatility, and enough talent to create great movies in a bunch of genres. He not only has The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, The Haunting (easily one of my 10 favorite horror movies), West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles, and Somebody Up There Likes Me, but now I also know about that Born to Kill in his back pocket as an example of his tremendous talents (he was also nominated for an Oscar for his work as editor on a little picture called Citizen Kane).

So far, Crime Wave is the best of the bunch, quickly becoming one of my very favorite crime dramas. I'm very excited by this quest, as it's giving me a reason to check out a lot of noirs both famous and not so much.