Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Be Kind Rewind

(My brother Mark and I grew up a year apart, and shared the same bedroom until we hit the big 18 and respectively hit the road. We were nurtured, educated, and exhilarated by much of the same popcult preoccupations and discoveries, and despite a fairly continual 37 year separation of geographical home bases we remain largely on the same page. He often sends me astute, pithy, extremely erudite movie-movie reactions after viewing some gem or cult classic during the twilight hours, and I’ve decided to post them on a semi-regular basis.)

Do the Noir Part 1
By Mark Duhamel

I thought I’d watch some Film Noir. That particularly cynical pre and post WWII genre of films often imitated and seldom equaled in it’s stark and sometimes unrelentingly bleak view of human nature in subsequent movie making eras. I am a big fan of the lighting, photography, and especially the sensibility of these mostly low budget, B&W films.

The synopses are courtesy of Netflix, which is also responsible for satisfying almost all movie whims. In order of viewing:

I started my foray onto the darkening past with a post-modern take on noir, 1975’s Night Moves, starring Gene Hackman and directed by Arthur Penn from an Alan Sharp script. My brother Scott cites the final scene featuring a seriously wounded Hackman in a small motorboat circling endlessly in a large expanse of ocean as the ultimate cinematic expression of uncertainty and futility. Or something like that.
It put me in the mood to dig deeper underground.

The Naked City (1948)
95 mins

When a model is found drowned in her bathtub, homicide detectives Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) are on the case. Their investigation, the inner workings of the police department and some of the "eight million stories in the Naked City" are explored. Filmed on location in New York City, this classic thriller won Oscars for cinematography and editing and was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar.
Cast:Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Frank Conroy, Ted de Corsia, House Jameson, Anne Sargent, Adelaide Klein, Tom Pedi
Director:Jules Dassin

My take: Difficult viewing. Takes real perseverance and commitment to the cause. It is an important film in it’s pioneering use of NYC location shooting and pseudo-documentary style, but in the end; pedestrian.

This Gun For Hire (1942)
81 mins

Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd) is an assassin whose latest murder assignment is paid for with counterfeit money by turncoat Willard Gates. Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), an entertainer and the girlfriend of the police lieutenant who's trying to bring Raven down, is recruited by the government to probe Gates's illegal activities. When Raven happens to meet Ellen on a train, they use their relationship to get what they want -- and exact revenge.
Cast:Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd, Tully Marshall, Marc Lawrence, Olin Howlin
Director:Frank Tuttle

The opening scene: Alan Ladd (billed as “Introducing Alan Ladd” after a ten year stint of un-credited, bit, and even student film parts) wakes up in a cheap hotel room and glances at his watch; 2:00 PM. He opens a note detailing that someone will be somewhere between 3:00 – 4:00 PM. Then, he checks his gun, an automatic, probably a 45. He gets up to leave but stops when a stray cat scratches at his window. He lets the cat in, gently handling it and opens a can of milk and pours it into a bowl, spilling some on his hand. He leaves the cat and goes to the washroom and just then the cleaning woman enters the room, sees the cat and viciously shoos it away. Alan Ladd returns and seeing the cat cruelty grabs the woman by the shoulder. She turns suddenly and her dress rips. “Get your hands off me you creep! You owe me a dress!” Ladd slaps her back and forth as only happens in films of this era, and orders her out. Next, Ladd enters a cheap apartment house, passing by a very young girl sitting on the steps, complete with polio leg braces, she smiles sweetly and greets him as he ascends the stairs. He summarily executes a man and a woman in an apartment and as he exits, once again encounters the girl who says demurely, “Mister, I dropped my ball.” Ladd sweetly obliges and recovers her ball. This is all within the first 6 minutes or so of film time. Laird Cregar is wonderfully creepy and cowardly, Robert Preston is not particularly memorable and of course Veronica Lake is radiant, smart, sassy and cast in an incredibly unbelievable fiction involving a US Senator, a night club owner, and a national security breach involving a decrepit chemical plant capitalist selling out the USofA. But who cares, she and Ladd pull it off and show that they are both world-class movie stars. It’s not about “acting” for either one, just about presence and shiny charisma.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
82 minutes
In this film noir classic, when model and aspiring actress Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) turns up dead, the evidence points to her manager, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), who was recently dumped by his star client. Dogged by a tenacious detective (Laird Cregar), Frankie finds the noose tightening, but Vicky's distrustful sister (Betty Grable) -- whose relationship with Frankie is chilly -- may have information that will clear him.
Cast:Morris Ankrum, Carole Landis, May Beatty, Allyn Joslyn, Chick Chandler, Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Alan Mowbray, Elisha Cook, William Gargan, Laird Cregar
Director:H. Bruce Humberstone

Wow. I’ll say it again, Wow. This is what it’s all about. Substantial performances all around. Victor Mature shines, Laird Cregar is at his creepy, foreboding best, Carole Landis plays a 1940’s version of Paris Hilton to the tee, Betty Grable is believable and satisfying as the good, sensible sister and the lighting is incredibly textured and layered, casting shimmering shadows snaking around evocative light pools. This one represents the darkly illuminated best noir has to offer. Where the title comes from remains an impenetrable mystery.

The Big Clock (1948)
96 minutes
In director John Farrow's noir thriller, crime magazine publisher Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) tries to pin the murder of his own mistress on the magazine's editor, George Stroud (Ray Milland), after he discovers George coming out of the woman's apartment. Things fall into place as all the signs increasingly point to George as the killer, making it that much easier for Earl to set up the editor to take the fall.
Cast:Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan, George Macready, Rita Johnson, Elsa Lanchester
Director:John Farrow

I remember this one from years ago, perhaps during film school. I’m almost sure I read about this in Manny Farber’s Farber on Film back in high school. I had seen it before many, many years ago. It is a good example of the noir moral dilemma; a basically good guy who does something not terribly but kinda wrong and from there his whole world slides towards utter disaster and disintegration. In this case, he has a drink with a beautiful woman who is not his wife and stands up to his boss who not so coincidently has a relationship with said beautiful woman. He ends up framed for something he didn’t do but they don’t know it's him. A nice snaky plot-boiler with some twists and admirable turns by Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, a spicy Rita Johnson and a very likably earnest Ray Milland.

Appointment with Danger (1951)
90 minutes
This hardboiled crime story stars stoic noir staple Alan Ladd as Al Goddard, a special investigator sent to Gary, Ind., to solve a postal detective's murder and track down the sole witness to the act: shy young nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert). With her reluctant aid, Goddard learns the identity of the culprits and soon uncovers their gang's plot to pull off a million-dollar mail heist. Jan Sterling is a standout as gun moll Dodie La Verne.
Cast:Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Steward, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Harry Morgan, David Wolfe, Dan Riss, Geraldine Wall, George J. Lewis
Director:Lewis Allen

A little strange noirish but squeaky clean copper caper except the cops are actually post office (??) cops, and there’s a nun, and yes, that’s right; Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as bad guy buddies. Alan Ladd goes “undercover” somehow convincing the bad guys he’s a bad guy. I didn’t buy it, but they did. And there’s a nun. Great title huh, they don't make ‘em like they used to.

Union Station (1950)
80 minutes
The same year they appeared together in Sunset Boulevard, William Holden and Nancy Olson co-starred in this classic film noir about a frightened passenger (Olson) who reports two suspicious men aboard a train bound for Chicago's Union Station. When the terminal's police squad learns that the men are armed and involved in a kidnapping scheme, the officer in charge (Holden) enlists the help of a veteran police inspector (Barry Fitzgerald).
Cast:William Holden, Nancy Olson, Barry Fitzgerald, Lyle Bettger, Jan Sterling, Allene Roberts, Herbert Heyes, Landon Dunning
Director:Rudolph Maté

This time it’s a copper caper with train station cops, with William Holden at his cynical, wisecracking, shoot me in the arm I don’t care best. It’s hard to beat William Holden for the noir leading man, no one comes close to his slacker, I don’t care but I really do nonchalance. Except for Robert Mitchum who transcends I don’t care with I don’t fucking care and I think I’m gonna hit you in the face soon.
This one is a kidnap caper. The victim is a sweet, blind, apparently rich girl. It succeeds because the “psychotic” kidnapper is actually pretty clever and stays a step ahead for most of the film. He is of course finally brought to justice by the combined efforts of the implacable William Holden and the plucky and courageous best friend portrayed by Nancy Olson. Barry Fitzgerald is in top form as always. The photography is nothing special, but the Union Station scenes are well staged.

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