Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Notes From the Noir Underground
Despite the fact that most of my readers (like me) are old, older, and way past prime time, it might make most of yer shrinking, soured, and barely beating curmudgeon hearts thump a little bit stronger if you knew that there are indeed young and fervent fellow pop culture vultures out there. After being blown away by a home screening of Howard Hawk’s prototypical Chandler/Bogie 1946 noir, The Big Sleep, a young, married vulture couple had the smarts to ask me to direct them further into the noir world, by (yee-hah) making a list for their enthusiastic perusal. They asked, I complied:
Glad to see you are pursuing your cinema studies with such verve and attention to detail, kiddies. The noir world is far too large, unwieldy and indefinable for me to go quickly there without going to great lengths, so I stuck strictly (purty much) to private eye stuff, ala The Big Sleep, with a few offerings thrown in that are close enough to sneak by. By the way, this was indeed a labor of love; cuz there is nothing I like more than a good list. (And a good trailer!)
Professor Scotty D
The Maltese Falcon (1941)-The definitive hard-boiled with Bogie as a Sam Spade that’ll never be beat, written and directed by John Huston from a Dashiell Hammet classic, and peopled with a first class supporting cast.
The Glass Key (1942)- Another solid Hammet adaptation, not exactly a private dick tale, with Alan Ladd as our tough guy hero and Veronica Lake as the romantic interest, William Bendix as a weirdly homoerotic baddie, exquisite running time of 86 minutes, and a catchphrase for the ages: “Gimme the roscoe.”
This Gun For Hire (1942)-Ladd and Lake again, perfect running time of 80 minutes, adapted from a Graham Greene book, the political crap has aged badly, but Ladd’s angelic looking toughie makes a hell of an impression from the infamous opening sequence throughout.
Murder My Sweet (1944)- Dick Powell is Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely in this wonderfully stylized and acutely cynical Edward Dmytryk version, with Powell as Marlowe doing the voice over narrator thang about as good as it gets.
Laura (1944)-Otto Preminger’s beautifully sensual tone poem, a gliding, probing dream of a film, with a very off kilter central performance from Dana Andrews as a hard guy obsessed with a dead gal, the emblematic presence of Gene Tierney, the infamous title song by Johnny Mercer and David Raskin, one of the greatest character names evuh in Waldo Lydecker, and a pallid “happy ending” that in no way removes the heavy shadows of complicity the film traffics in.
The Blue Dahlia (1946)- From an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler, a sour, dissolute black tale of post war noir blues, filled with blackmail, amnesia, and corruption, featuring Ladd and Lake again, with another great bit from William Bendix.
Lady in the Lake (1947)- Another Chandler book brought to the screen with Robert Montgomery directing Robert Montgomery as Marlowe, and, in a totally bold experiment for it’s time, the movie is mostly photographed from Montgomery/Marlowe’s subjective point of view, while screenwriter Steve Fisher retains huge chunks of Chandler’s marvelously pithy and archetypal dialogue.
The Lady From Shanghai (1948)-A huge personal favorite of mine, I’ve watched it countless times and continually marveled at writer/director/star Orson Welles’s sheer filmmaking ingenuity and audaciousness. Adapted from a mediocre novel, Welles makes this low budget bit of noir into a true cult classic, with Welles’s then-wife Rita Hayworth as one of the most memorable cinematic femme fatales of all time. Welles truly utilizes his prodigious skills to elevate his version of noir into something quite complex and dreamlike. The Lady From Shanghai (click on link)is more baroque than most noir films, and it’s shifting juxtapositions of locale, character, and imagery, makes this a stunningly elliptical movie; an 86 minute ticking time bomb of fate.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)- Robert Aldrich kicks this 50’s noir into overdrive in his brutally streamlined version of a Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer book, with deadpan hunk-of-beef Ralph Meeker as the ultimate Hammer, a callous and sadistic not-so-white knight. A hipster favorite for many reasons, including a picture perfect supporting cast, an outré literary subplot/clue, the private-eye-meets-cold-war search for “the great whatsit”, and Aldrich’s richly textured but ultimately simplistic narrative-driven direction. Ten thumbs up.
Alphaville (1965)-Strange, mutant mix of sci-fi and noir, one of Jean Luc Godard’s most successful attempts at self-conscious art, with tough potato Eddie Constatine a sorta secret agent/private dick of the future. An absolute visual stunner, and also a movie almost impossible to get out of one’s mind after viewing.
Marlowe (1969)-A somewhat pedestrian, but earnest, update of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister with a solid James Garner as a slightly anachronistic Marlowe awash in the chaos of the 60’s. Bruce Lee puts in an unforgettable cameo.
The Long Goodbye (1973)-Yet another long time fave of mine, with Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe, in Robert Altman’s sublime attempt to subvert the noir genre the way he did up the western in 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Despite the fact that Gould is as deadpan and cynical as any big screen Marlowe, he is also a truly wounded and lost man, one who silently believes in a seemingly discarded chivalrous code yet keeps muttering to the non-listeners around him and to himself “It’s O.K. with me.” Like the traditional private eyes, he solves the mysteries, but winds up with no victory other than the hollow sense that’s he’s done the right thing in an uncaring void, a theme equally vividly displayed in 70’s companion pieces Chinatown and Night Moves. Altman’s casting of the one and only Sterling Hayden as drunken novelist Roger Wade is only one of his delicious supporting choices, alongside Nina van Pallandt, Henry Gibson, director Mark Rydell and baseball rebel Jim Bouton.
Night Moves (1975)-Gene Hackman is Harry Mosby, small-time private detective with a nose for the truth and doing the right thing in Arthur Penn’s sadly overlooked contemporary noir, impeccably scripted by Alan Sharp (The Hired Hand, Ulzana’s Raid), as a mediation on middle-age, post-Camelot America, and the gut wrenching irony that knowledge no longer equals power. The film finished off with one of the most superb and subtle final shots in movie history, a pronouncement I wouldn’t toss around lightly.
Chinatown (1975)- No need to oversell this potent mix of Hollywood magic and artistic vision, combining the one-of-a-kind elements of Robert Towne’s transcendent screenplay, Roman Polanski’s razor sharp direction, and two all-time turns from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. If you haven’t seen this you musta been comatose.
Farewell My Lovely (1975)- Throwback Chandler film, with aging Robert Mitchum as a sad-eyed, world-weary Marlowe. Mitchum’s smoky voice sounds resplendent doing the voice-over, the production values on display are superb, and despite Dick Richards predictable direction that movie scores some extra points as an affectionate tribute to L.A., Chandler and noir.
Harper (1966)/The Drowning Pool (1975)-Two outings with Paul Newman as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Harper don’t really qualify as noir, but both are well cast, above average private detective entries, with Newman solidly filling the shoes of a window-peeping dick, and both manage to exhibit nice auras of curdled morality and back door blues.
The Late Show (1976)-Quirky, semi-comic tribute to Hammet and Chandler, ably written and directed by Robert Benton and boasting the most unusual detective team-up of all, Art Carney as an over-the-hill gumshoe and Lily Tomlin as his reluctant new-agey partner.