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.


Iza Larize said...

I love Film Noir! Nice post! :)

kathy said...

I have always loved Mitchum, with his looks and talent it is hard to go wrong. I miss having movies that told a complete story in less than 2 hours! It's kinda nice not to require a huge time commitment in order to view a quality film...