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.

1 comment:

kathy said...

I love Noir films. We watched them all the time in the 60's when TV channels were limited and these are the films that were shown prior to cable programming! Alas, that is when my love of Bogart began...