The Big Combo

Cornel Wilde and Helene Stanton in The Big Combo (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1955).

Anne burst out laughing when Police Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) suddenly, and not out of any visible need, in the middle of a conversation with his captain, starts shaving in his office with an electric razor. This is that kind of film. What kind of film is that, you ask? The real good low-budget noir kind. Richard Conte as the villainous Mr. Brown is a fast-talking, smooth-dressing wop with a hardass attitude; Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman are a couple of murderous but somewhat poignant thugs; Brian Donlevy is a washed-up kingpin whose hearing aid provides for some truly inventive screen brutality; Jean Russell is the mobster's long-suffering squeeze, with some of the flattest blonde hair in the entire fifties (thanks again to Anne for that observation); Helen Walker is the mobster's previous squeeze, who is either pretending to be crazy because she's scared, or pretending to care about gardening because she's crazy, or both. I got a little confused by her character. More incredible cinematography from John Alton.


Border Incident + A Digression on Noir

George Murphy in Border Incident (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949).

This is one of those movies that people argue about over whether it is or isn't noir. I guess it's about time I offered my own definition of noir, and in so doing show why I believe Border Incident qualifies. I divide the elements of noir into three essential categories, and four variable ones. A film might count as noir even if it only meets the three essential qualifications, but if exhibits one or more of the four variables as well, it's noir for sure.
1. Theme revolves around crime, often though not always in an urban setting. At least some major characters are themselves criminals, some of whom may be corrupted law enforcement officials or other representatives of authority.
2. Story includes elements that problematize conventional narrative models of morality, justice, heroism, etc. In some cases, the central character or characters may elicit a certain amount of audience identification despite acting in illegal, amoral, or even cruelly violent ways. Films noir often eschew a Hollywood "happy ending" in favor of a more downbeat resolution, which might include prison or even death for the protagonist(s). Many of the exceptions to this tendency are the result of film board censorship or studio interference rather than directorial choice.
3. Technical apparatus of the film calls attention to itself via vivid stylization that nevertheless remains generally circumscribed by realist parameters. For example, the lighting frequently emphasizes play of light and shadow, often in high contrast, and there may be a preponderance of canted camera angles and other means of achieving skewed visual perspectives. The standard take is that these techniques complement and enhance the unstable moral and psychological timbre of the stories.
1. Presence of a femme fatale.
2. "Snappy" sticomythic dialogue, often between a man and a woman.
3. A mise en scene that features certain stock elements of the urban crime melodrama, such as flashing neon hotel signs, light through venetian blinds, wet city streets at night, smoky bars and pool halls, dimly lit police stations, fleabag hotel rooms, etc.
4. A general sense, as in "naturalist" nineteenth-century French fiction, that the world is corrupt and no one can be trusted. Rather than "good" or "bad," characters tend to be either "weak" (victims, drudges, rats) or "strong" (bosses, goons, vamps). Men are wolves and women are "dames." The police are often ineffectual and/or crooked. Life is appetitive, vicious, dangerous.

This schema could be tweaked in various ways, but it'll do for a starting point.

Anyway, the noir status of Mann's Border Incident has been questioned because both protagonists--Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy--are completely straight arrows, neither of them in any way morally compromised by the dark world of crime and violence they enter into as undercover operatives. They represent law and order unproblematically, and the picture they present of US-Mexican police cooperation is optimistic (naive) in the extreme. The corny flag-waving frame structure of the narrative in particular can make the film seem like a pretty unsubtle piece of governmental propaganda. All this countered, however, by the nightmarish atmosphere of the underworld in which most of the story takes place. The villains (especially uber-tough guy Charles McGraw and the uncredited Lynn Whitney as his wife) exude near-tragic menace and desperation. The grisly bandit-murders of braceros trying to make their way back across the border with their illegal US wages are deeply horrifying. And one moment in particular--George Murphy's moment of excruciating terror, shown above--flouts Hollywood convention so successfully that I'm frankly almost shocked this movie isn't more famous. John Alton's severe black-and-white photographic composition (he wrote the book Painting with Light) solidifies the accomplishment.


52 Pick-Up

Roy Scheider and eighties prices in 52 Pick-Up (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1986)

Workmanlike Elmore Leonard vehicle. Captures the atmosphere of low-life high stakes at midtempo that characterizes Leonard's second-tier work (i.e., most of it). Doesn't have the crackly groove of Jackie Brown or the crystalline gleam of Out of Sight, but it's still better than most other Leonard-based crime movies I've seen. Scheider has the right look, though he's wooden as hell. Ann-Margret gets in a sharp look or two. Kelly Preston plays a character played by Kelly Preston. Doug McClure plays a campaign poster. The rest of the ensemble is tight: John Glover, Clarence Williams III, Robert Trebor, and--with way too little screen time--Vanity. The movie's main defect is the use of the porn subtheme as an excuse to look like a porn flick at times, and one disturbing execution scene that generates more gravity than the movie knows how to deal with. Oddly, the Golan-Globus production team had done another 52 Pick-Up adaptation two years previously, titled The Ambassador (starring Robert Mitchum and Rock Hudson!) and set in the context of the mideast crisis. I haven't seen it, and I haven't read the novel, so I don't know which version is the closest to the original text.

Roy Scheider, Vanity, and a large plush bear.

Rebel Without a Cause

"Who lives?" Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1955).

Somehow, I'd never seen this before. Is it too much to ask: why can't a film look like this anymore? OK, a few do. Far from Heaven comes to mind. Better question: why don't lots of new films look like this? Cheap horror films used to look nearly this good. Like Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (1963), which I just saw (on VHS--I can't find a good image from the web to post). Why do most films now, instead, look like episodes of Judging Amy? Or like screensavers or TIAA/CREF ads? I'll stop being cranky and ask the real question: why no more Technicolor? I've heard that it's too expensive. Can that be right? Is anything too expensive for Hollywood? Don't they build entire cities just to blow them up? And don't get me started on black and white. And silents! Why all this talk, talk, talk?


Yellow Sky

Henry Morgan in Yellow Sky (dir. William A. Wellman, 1948)

Audacious "impossible shot": rifle-barrel view of Gregory Peck

Anne Baxter and Gregory Peck

Richard Widmark

I'd always heard that Pursued is as close as Hollywood ever came to a true noir western, but Yellow Sky is even closer in many ways. There's the theme of criminal camaraderie that threatens constantly to devolve into betrayal and violence. There's the snappy tough-guy dialogue: "You gotta hit some people with an axe." And there's the rich high-contrast black-and-white photography full of skewed angles and obliquely framed spaces. At one point I swear you even see venetian blind shadows. Highly recommended.


The Blue Dahlia

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia (dir. George Marshall, 1946).

Raymond Chandler's screenplay would be fine if it didn't bear such a heavy burden of expectation. Also, the real-life horror of the Black Dahlia case, which got its name from happening shortly after the movie was released, sort of upstages the relatively tame mayhem herein. And Veronica Lake plays a pretty superfluous character, though she's so striking that you almost don't notice. It's all very watchable, and reasonably stylish.


The Lost Patrol

Victor McLaglen goes ballistic in The Lost Patrol (dir. John Ford, 1934)

By the time Ford shot this, in 1934, he had already directed well over half of the movies he would ever direct. How's that for a mind-blower? He is, at this stage, still heavily inflected with the grammar of the silents. Max Steiner's score, for all its muted heroism (I've still got that somber desert march playing in my head), might as well be Wurlitzer accompaniment, and the acting--especially Karloff's--essentially is silent acting, with some words thrown in. What's interesting is to consider Ford's later films in this light: the stately processions, the stony generals, the staggering waltzes of heat-addled outcasts in the desert, the kinetic chaos of speeding wagon wheels and the flutter of wayward petticoats, the play of men's shadows on canyon walls and melancholy vigils from high towers.

What's also interesting is Ford's fascination with stealthy, "othered" enemies fighting on their own terrain. Here, instead of the usual Indians, the dark assassins are Arabs. We don't actually see any of them until the end, and then only from a distance, with their faces concealed by cloth. Part of the effect of this is to deprive them of their humanity, as we might expect, but it also functions as a way of asserting their dignity. Their faces are never opened to caricature. When they gun down the religious fanatic Sanders (Karloff), as he ascends a dune bearing a makeshift wooden cross, it seems pretty clear that Ford isn't primarily invested in showing what evil heathens they are. He's taking some guilty Catholic relish in the impotence of the zealot's piety against native vitality. He's past the "noble savage" idea; he's mainly into the "savage" part of it, with the exemption from civilized niceties therein granted.


Odds Against Tomorrow

Harry Belafonte in Odds Against Tomorrow (dir. Robert Wise, 1959).

I watched this on videotape, so I had to steal the image above off the web; the image I wanted to show is the first shot of the bitter veteran Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) walking down the city street, heading straight into the camera, his body strangely overlit so that he looks totally ... white. In the next five minutes, he interacts gently but condescendingly with a little black girl who bumps into him on the sidewalk, he is nearly abusive toward a facially discolored (burn? birthmark?) hotel clerk who fails to notice him standing at the desk waiting for service, and he coldly rebuffs the black elevator operator who tries to engage him in pleasant small talk. Later in the film, his racism emerges full force: "You didn't say nothing about the third man being a nigger," he snarls to ex-cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley), who is tring to organize a bank heist with Slater and jazz musician Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte). At no point does the film try to ameliorate or explain Slater's bigotry, nor do we get any moments of transcendence. The black/white tension is merely one facet of the enormous chip on his shoulder, which in other contexts tends to increase rather than diminish our sympathy for him. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that when he does lose our sympathy, we feel it almost as a personal loss, as a breech of his humanity that implicates us somehow. When his long-suffering but adoring wife Lorry (Shelley Winters) is out working for the evening, he seduces his neighbor Helen (Gloria Grahame)--who is also his wife's friend. The leer on his face as he charms her menacingly into his arms is more spite than lust. He wants to rub dirt in his wife's regard for him, as her monetary support represents to him his own failure. Shortly before the climactic heist, while he is waiting alone on the outskirts of a small upstate New York town, a rabbit hops into his line of sight. He raises his rifle, prepares to shoot, and is momentarily caught up short by the creature's soft vulnerability. He relaxes his aim, prepared to let go of his violent instincts, when suddenly the rabbit startles and runs. Ryan erupts again into predatory rage, firing wildly in the rabbit's general direction. Its very will to live angers him.

Belafonte's Ingram is, by contrast, cool and collected, though he is skating on thin ice with a local mobster, to whom he owes $7500 in gambling debts. In a pit of fear and desperation, he gets drunk and stinks up a duet with blueswoman Mae Barnes, letting his part in the call-and-response refrain of "All Men Are Evil" grow into a strangled solo that drowns out the rest of the song. In what may be an unconsciously racist lapse in the metaphoric logic of the film, he is presented as a black man who ("ironically"?) can't deal with the "jungle" out on the street. On an outing with his little girl, periodically hounded by mob goons, he leans nervously against a phone booth as the noise of the animals rumbles in the background. Like Slater, he has a broken domestic situation that we sense could be unbroken easily with a little attitude adjustment. He still loves his ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton), and she loves him, but his gambling and risky lifestyle has put a wedge between them. And, also like Slater, he has a chip on his shoulder: he resents the middle-class world of integrated PTA meetings and afternoon socials into which Ruth and his child have been accepted.

The two characters never have a meeting of the minds; their mutualities never reflect upon one another in ways perceptible to them except as confrontational outbursts. Neither one learns anything about himself through the other. And yet, by the end, they essentially comprise each other's world. They crash together like atoms in a reactor.

Wise's direction can be showy and symbolistic at times, but it is always moving. The jazz score by John Lewis is cool and tough, as is the screenplay, partly penned by blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky (fronted by John O. Killens).

The Bat

Agnes Moorehead, Lenita Lane, and the shadow of the mysterious "Bat" in The Bat (dir. Crane Wilbur, 1959).

Low-budget old-dark-house apple sauce concerning a shadowy killer with razor fingers (clearly an inspiration for Freddy Krueger) known as "The Bat." Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, and some game supporting players manage to stylize the silliness into something like a unique mood. Price blows away his hunting partner point-blank with a shotgun in the first few minutes, so you know it's going to be lively. There's one shot where The Bat's wicked claw curls suddenly through an open window and around a latch, like an animated tendril of ink: it's a small triumph of camerawork and composition in the frame, and genuinely scary to boot. Bonus element: Darla Hood of Our Gang as one of the victims.


On Dangerous Ground

Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, and Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1952)

On Dangerous Ground was panned upon its initial release because critics didn't understand the brilliance of the sudden shift in setting halfway through the story from the dark crime-ridden city to the great snowy outdoors. Now it's generally recognized as a significant Ray film, a major noir, and a great Robert Ryan performance. It's not perfect; the ending, despite film scholar Glenn Erickson's tolerant attitude towards it on the DVD commentary, reeks of studio interference. Still, it is a tremendously satisfying movie. Ryan radiates presence in every shot, playing a cynical city cop who is quickly slipping over the edge into brutality and despair. Bernard Herrmann's score registers his character's volatility perfectly, as do the recurrent point-of-view driving shots filmed by George Diskant. All three of these elements, as is often noted, presage Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver (also scored by Herrmann). My favorite moment: Ryan's Jim Wilson is confronting and being confronted by Cleo Moore's Myrna Bowers (a hood's girlfriend who holds information about the whereabouts of some cop-killers):
Myrna: You'll make me talk--you'll squeeze it out of me with those big strong arms--won't you?
Jim [pause]: That's right, sister.


Ella Raines in Impact (dir. Arthur Lubin, 1949)

Wife (Helen Walker) and lover (Tony Barrett) plot to murder successful industrialist husband (Brian Donlevy). Lover hits husband over head with lug wrench, then drives off in husband's car and immediately gets killed by truck. Husband wakes up, stumbles into back of Bekins moving van and ends up in different state. Lover's badly burned body is taken for that of husband. Husband follows story of his own death in the news and takes a job as mechanic working for pretty lady garage owner (Ella Raines) in "Larkspur, Idaho" (actually filmed in Larkspur, California; since Larkspur is in the bay area, where the rest of the story takes place, they had to make it somewhere else, but there are signs all over town that say "Larkspur," so they were stuck with the name).

So far, so good. Lots of situational possibilities. Unfortunately, the wife becomes a suspect and is charged with the "murder" too soon, thus deflating much of the suspense around what will happen when it is revealed that the husband is still alive. By the time the husband makes his way back to San Francisco, it devolves into a creaky courtroom drama, in which the tables are turned and the husband is charged with the lover's murder, and everything needs to be sorted out with the help of the pretty garage owner, a kindly old Irish police lieutenant (Charles Coburn), and a Chinese maid (Anna May Wong). Oh, and along the way, the postwar domestic imbalance whereby women are forced by necessity to do men's work undergoes modest but gallant correction. Indeed. But you know what? It's a 1940s crime drama, in nice crisp black and white (Ernst Laszlo behind the camera), with great looking cars and furniture, and will therefore do just fine, thank you.


The Black Cat

Boris Karloff, a cat, and an unidentified ex in The Black Cat (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)

Where to begin? Maybe with the names of Lugosi's and Karloff's characters: Dr. Vitus Werdegast and Hjalmar Poelzig. They are old friends turned bitter enemies who play out their final confrontation with the lives of a young honeymooning couple as the stakes. Lugosi's Werdegast has spent the last fifteen years of his life in a prison, after being betrayed by Poelzig, who has also taken away the love of Werdegast's life. Poelzig is an architect and war criminal, whose ultramodern mansion is built over the battlefield where men died as a result of his treachery. As if that weren't enough, he is also now a practitioner of the black arts. The mansion is rigged for self-destruction, as though Poelzig knows that his existence cannot sustain itself, that one day his evils must collapse in on him in House-of-Usher fashion. (Of all the Universal Poe films from the '30s starring Lugosi, this is by far the best, and the one that has least to do with Poe, though there are tonal and thematic elements from more than one text in addition to the title story.) The set design, more than any other single feature, accounts for much of the film's alluring strangeness: it was a stroke of genius to make Poelzig's house a futuristic palace rather than a moldy dungeon. The continuous music score by Heinz Roemheld creates the effect of a silent film. Speaking of music, blink and you'll miss John Carradine as the organist in Poelzig's Satanist cult.

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue (dir. Robert Florey, 1932)

Lugosi's curly hair as Dr. Mirakle (rhymes with grackle) makes him look like a sinister hybrid Marx Brother. He's a sociopathic doctor who for some reason works for a carnival, traveling around looking for women of a suitable blood type to mate with his intelligent gorilla, "Erik." (I just noticed that if you subtract Erik from Mirakle, you're left with mal.) Aside from how delightfully lurid Lugosi is, the one thing that makes this film a must-see is Karl Freund's cinematography. Almost every frame is an autonomous portal into mystery, from matte shots of Paris rooftops to close-ups of extras in the crowd. Look at this Fuseli-esque arrangement of Sidney Fox, post-ape-attack:

And I have to include a detail shot of Mirakle's stationery letterhead:

The Raven

Irene Ware and Raine Bennett satisfy the great public demand for interpretive dance based on Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven (dir. Louis Friedlander [Lew Landers], 1935)

"Yes ... I like to torrturrre!" The Poe-obsessed Dr. Vollin exemplifies the qualities that made Lugosi so horrifying: a repellent sexual selfishness that erupts into gleeful sadism, filtered through truly compelling bad acting. Dr. Vollin builds elaborate working models of the terrors in Poe's stories, including a full-size pit and pendulum into which he straps a virtuous old judge. There's also an early version of the trash-compactor room from Star Wars. Karloff stumbles around evoking mild sympathy as a two-bit criminal who hopes that Dr. Vollin will reverse the plastic-surgery damage he has intentionally done to his face if he does his bidding. Inspiration for Two-Face in Batman? Trivial highlight: the tabletop horseracing game that Lugosi and his dinner guests play.


How to Draw a Bunny

Still shot of Ray Johnson in How to Draw a Bunny (dir. John W. Walter, 2002).

Engrossing documentary about artist Ray Johnson and his dramatic "final project": his suicide by drowning in 1995. Interviews with Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Christo, Judith Malin, et al.


The Good Shepherd

Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd (dir. Robert De Niro, 2006).

With The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro has directed the best Francis Ford Coppola film since Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily saying much, and though this is really a lot better than, say, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, or The Godfather III, it's trying to be as good as The Godfather II. (I will give it the benefit of the doubt that it knew better than even to try to be as good as The Godfather I). Why does it fail? Partly because you just can't make that kind of movie anymore, since part of what was so great about that kind of movie was that movies like them hadn't been made before. Partly because Matt Damon just doesn't look twenty years older than himself, and the effect is sort of like watching a little kid in a grown-up hat and shoes. Partly because a movie whose main idea is that organizations like the CIA and the Skull and Bones Society function together as conflicted expressions of men's inability to trust each other as friends is missing most of the bigger picture. And partly because that Eddie Redmayne guy who plays the son is so, so, so annoying. The intertwining past/present plot is handled pretty skillfully, but there are a lot of insufficiently differentiated supporting characters, many of whom don't end up being very important anyway. It's amusing to listen to Michael Gambon play a professor who mumbles drivel about good poetry being as pure as mathematics.


Knocked Up

Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann in Knocked Up (dir. Judd Apatow, 2007).

Guest reviewer Jordan Davis renders my own commentary superfluous:
My haircutter told me for about a year and a half that I needed to see The Forty-Year-Old Virgin but when I did finally she was like, oh, that movie. I saw Knocked Up on opening night--not so much to have something to say to relieve my terminal awkwardness but to see what the guy with the best lines in 40YOV--Steve Carell sees a bookstore employee's thong poking out of her pants, says "There's something wrong with her underwear," and Rogen responds, "Yeah, they're not in my mouth"--could do as a lead.

What I should have done was stay home and watch DVDs of Undeclared. Rogen is okay, the ensemble of homely stoners is okay, the script has its moments, and it turns out I can watch just about anything with Paul Rudd in it, but. Katherine Heigl is unpleasant as the E! producer-turned-talent who makes the heartwarmingly implausible decision not to terminate her pregnancy with a destitute man-boobed web designer. The plot points read like Syd Field workbook examples. Worst: no memorable zingers. Saving graces: club bouncer Craig Robinson gets a solid monologue on why he won't be letting Heigl and her older sister behind the ropes, and Kristen Wiig is very good as an envious TV executive.

I realize I'm not the audience, Harold Ramis-cameo to the contrary. If you're heading into freshman comp in the fall, you're going to need material for an essay on reproductive rights. Your B plus paper is already here. The movie, though, is a B minus.


The Prestige

Cats and hats: The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006).

There are three parts to a magic trick:
1. The Pledge: you show the audience an empty hat.
2. The Turn: you pull a rabbit out of the hat.
3. The Prestige: you have to ... somehow ... get the rabbit back in the hat?

I didn't really understand this movie, I guess.


Fallen Angel

Venetian blinds out of control: Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell in Fallen Angel (dir. Otto Preminger, 1945).

Preminger's follow-up to Laura has all the ingredients of classic noir, including gorgeous cinematography, a powerful soundtrack, and some jaw-dropping circumventions of the Breen Censorship Office's rigid code (a spent-looking couple lying in the same bed, for example, a prolonged steamy kiss, and a clear instance of butt-grabbing). Dana Andrews is great as the unscrupulous drifter who comes up with a plan to marry an old maid (Alice Faye) and bilk her out of her inheritance so he can win over the true object of his desires, the hot 'n' slutty waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). There are excellent supporting performances from Anne Revere, Charles Bickford, John Carradine, Olin Holland, Percy Kilbride (Pa Kettle), Bruce Cabot (of King Kong fame), and an uncredited Dorothy Adams.

HOT, indeed.

The only thing, to my mind, that keeps this picture from attaining true top-of-the-line classic noir status is the plot resolution, which requires us to buy a substantial change of sentiments in the main character without much motivation, and--here I will try not to reveal anything specific--misses an opportunity for a much more compelling whodunnit payoff, which would also provide an antidote to the first problem.


Strange Illusion

Jimmy Lydon in Strange Illusion (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945).

This variation on Hamlet is one of those films where a low budget and bad acting cannot alone account for the peculiar stilted and unreal quality of the mise en scène--there must be genius involved. Ulmer, you'll recall, was a designer for Max Reinhardt's theater and an assistant to Murnau. He became known for his ability to film movies on a six-day schedule (although Strange Illusion took thirteen). His masterpiece is arguably the hard-noir Detour (1944); strong cases could also be made for The Black Cat (1934) and a handful of others. It's unlikely that anyone would claim that position for Strange Illusion, but there is a kind of pleasure in it that few other films offer. It's tempting to imagine that David Lynch was influenced by its weirdly slow cadences and unheimlich staging. Lydon's character Paul Cartwright has a lot of similarities to Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, for example. These two films share an oblique indulgence in Hardy-Boys-style gee-whiz mystery hijinx, in which the intrepid young sleuth-in-the-making channels his fascination with the dark criminal underworld through his murky "father issues." The dream sequences that frame the story are the most obvious stylistic indices of Ulmer's ability to think beyond the merely narrative elements of the theme, but there is enough psychoanalytic skullduggery and Oedipal delirium throughout to maintain a general sense of surreality. Warren Williams is the consummate dastard as a usurping Claudius figure, and Sally Eilers is his Gertrude, whom everyone refers to (including her children) as "The Princess." Cherish the scene where Lydon breaks spontaneously over the phone into forties white teen hipster slang ("Hello vixen, what's mixin'?") as the wiretapping villains listen in in square bewilderment.