The Big Steal

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in The Big Steal (dir. Don Siegel, 1949).

Don Siegel's third full-length directorial credit, and his first for RKO. Mitchum and Greer try to renew the chemistry they shared in Out of the Past, and largely succeed. Greer's no femme fatale here, but Mitchum--at least at first--comes off as somewhat of a bad boy. Maybe the most appealing cast member is Ramon Novarro, Mexican star of the silent era, as a shrewd inspector general. William Bendix is fun to watch as always. The action is crisp and satisfying, even if one mourns the film this could have been had the censors not vetoed most of the original script.



A serial killer's Baudelaire-inspired letter in Lured (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1947).

Boris Karloff.

Cedric Hardwicke and Lucille Ball.

Scotland Yard enlists dancehall girl Lucille Ball to help track down a serial killer of young women in this enjoyable Sirk vehicle.

I'm sick and can only write TV Guide-length descriptions.


The Good German

Cate Blanchett in The Good German (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2006).

It's not a great film--Tobey Maguire is terribly miscast, the Casablanca allusions are clumsy and pointless, and the story is predictable. Still, Soderbergh hasn't gotten enough credit for how effectively he uses forties camera and lighting technology. This too could have been even better: it's frustrating that he's not a master of composition in the frame, as so much else in his area of expertise would snap into life if he were. At times he comes close, when his subject is the naturally gray urban world of businesspersons and gangsters, as in Out of Sight and The Limey. The artifice of high-contrast black and white, however, puts demands on his artistry that show his limitations as well as his strengths. The frame above represents an unusually effective instance of visual audacity.

It also represents how striking Cate Blanchett is--not just in terms of physical beauty, but as an expressive actor of the highest order. She is undeniably the best thing about the film. When the camera hugs her features in close-ups, or anchors the sets to her figure as it clings to doorways and glides through corridors, all of Soderbergh's timidity temporarily evaporates.


Cause for Alarm!

Brad Morrow (as Bradley Mora) and Loretta Young in Cause for Alarm! (dr. Tay Garnett, 1951).

Gripping psychological thriller about a young housewife terrorized repeatedly by a psychotic eight-year-old who thinks he's Hopalong Cassidy. Seriously, about a quarter of the movie is this kid bugging Loretta Young for a cookie handout. They have scenes together that go on so long you're sure it's going to end up being relevant to the rest of the story in some way, but ... nope. Just endless footage of nice lady talking to cute little boy in cowboy suit, for your viewing enjoyment.

Then there's the main plot about Young's physically and mentally ill husband, Barry Sullivan, who thinks she's conspiring with his doctor, Bruce Cowling (her ex-boyfriend), to kill him. When his heart gives out and he croaks, she must scramble to get back the letter he's just sent to the DA, which lays out the supposed murder plan. This involves prolonged arguments with the postman (Irving Bacon) and other locals that do generate a fair level of Hitchcockian suspense, tempered by frustration with this woman for being such a nitwit. There's a bit at the end, involving the doctor and an ashtray, that almost tips things over into wicked brilliance, except that it's pretty clear it wasn't intended to.

I enjoyed this movie a lot more than this report is making it sound. Its value as cinema per se is null, except as an illustration of how much entertainment can be generated with a miniscule budget and an utter lack of visual imagination (it was adapted from a radio play, and you could probably follow it just fine with your eyes closed). Although, when I think about, the brightly lit suburban exteriors and cramped TV-set interiors do have a certain appeal: everything looks slightly washed out, self-critically aware, veering towards irony.


Payback (Director's Cut)

Mel Gibson in Payback (dir. Brian Helgeland, 1999/2006).

I haven't seen the originally-released theatrical version of this. Apparently it has a completely different ending and contains Kris Kristofferson. I rented it because I found out it was an adaptation of Richard Stark's The Hunter, the first in his series of "Parker" novels (Stark is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). The Hunter was previously filmed as Point Blank in 1967. Point Blank is by far the better film, though this isn't bad, and is in fact closer to the Stark spirit in general.

Stark's hard-boiled master thief Parker is here named Porter (Westlake doesn't let people use the Parker name unless they commit to doing a full Parker series, which they haven't--someone at HBO or somewhere should take it under serious consideration). He is played quite ably by Mel Gibson, who only breaks character mildly once or twice, mostly by adopting overly cute facial expressions. The idea in the books is that Parker is not a nice guy at all. He's completely unsentimental, he has no sense of humor, and he will kill anybody if he has to. The thing that allows the reader to "get behind" him as the center of narrative subjectivity without being completely repulsed is that he has a code of sorts. It's not an ethical code, exactly, but it is practical in the extreme, and it becomes a point of fascination how often that practicality coincides with non-sociopathic versions of ethics. Every once in a while he does something utterly unconscionable, and we find ourselves swept up in our identification with him, making ways to rationalize it--something he doesn't bother with.

This aspect of the novels comes off best in the early parts of the film, when we see Porter stealing money from a homeless man, stiffing a waitress for her tip (things that Parker would probably never do, actually), and beating the daylights out of his treacherous junkie ex-wife who conspired with his former partner to cheat and kill him (Parker would do that). This latter scene, where Gibson knocks Deborah Kara Unger all over the kitchen, resulting in the real-life breaking of a couple of her ribs, was cut from the theatrical release, much to Unger's horror. She worked so hard for it!

Enjoyable supporting performances by William Devane and (uncredited) James Coburn. I hate to say it, but Lucy Liu is a bit much as a sado-masochistic hooker or moll or gangster or ... hell, I don't know what she's supposed to be.

I was happy to see that there was an interview with Westlake on the DVD special features, though I wish it had been a little longer and more substantive.


The Lady from Shanghai

Rita Hayworth as Elsa Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai (dir. Orson Welles, 1947).

Glenn Anders as George Grisby: "I don't want to be within a thousand miles of that city, or any other city for that matter, when they start dropping those bombs."

Orson Welles as Mike O'Hara.

Everett Sloane as Arthur Bannister, under Hayworth's gaze.

Welles and an octopus.

I have wanted to see this movie for years, and somehow never got around to it. It was worth the wait. I know about all the reasons it was such a disappointment to Welles--the scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, the scenes that didn't, the sappy score--and it is the kind of thing that makes you want to weep. All that footage irremediably lost, the director's total vision consigned forever to the imagination of history. But even so, this mangled compromise may be the most startlingly original film to come out of Hollywood in the forties. Even more than Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai reveals the depths of Welles' eccentric sensibility in both its technical and imaginative aspects (which are often the same thing). The set pieces are justly famous: the aquarium scene, the farcical trial sequence, the Chinese theater, the funhouse mirrors. No one seems to like the opening bit with the carriage ride in the park (Welles himself thought it was too dull and ordinary), but I was hooked from that point on: Welles perched atop the archaic vehicle with his buggy whip, holding forth in his ridiculous "Black Irish" accent, Hayworth ensconced inside, gleaming like a white pearl.

Lots of little moments stay with you: Hayworth swandiving off an ocean cliff within the circular frame of a telescope or singing "Please Don't Kiss Me" (overplayed instrumentally throughout the film) while lying on her back and lazily raising a cigarette to her lips; Glenn Anders, with his bizarre Warner Bros. cartoon voice, chattering about "taaarget practice" and impending atomic war; an archly staged tableau of hoodlums in the park; the constant swirl of slow zooms and canted angles. Everyone, studio and public alike, must have thought Welles was insane. And there is that touch of actual madness to the film, that hysterical clarity of subtle optic distortion you see in El Greco or Diane Arbus.


Detective Story

Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (dir. William Wyler, 1951).

The main narrative, centered on the rage-filled detective who gradually finds out disturbing things about his wife's past, tries a little too hard, in that way of the midcentury melodramatic stage, whence this film is adapted. Despite the setting, it never feels like noir, partly because it's so conciously "tragic." Noir is never tragic in that Aristotelian/Shakespearean way. It's just a bitch, like life.

But it's a pleasure to watch the cast, especially those thick, reliable fellows William Bendix and Bert Freed. Lee Grant is also fun to watch in her first screen appearance, reprising her role in the Broadway stage production as a shoplifter on the make for a husband.


Bunny Lake Is Missing

Carol Lynley and Noel Coward in Bunny Lake Is Missing (dir. Otto Preminger, 1965).

Later Preminger piece in which a young woman's daughter goes missing--or is she simply imagining that she ever had a daughter in the first place? Visually very elegant. The acting is a mixed bag, and when it fails it's mostly the script's fault. For instance, there's the old absurdity wherein a character behaves more or less like a normal person until it is revealed that they are insane, at which point the character starts acting like a child, making the entire climax sort of daffy. Noel Coward is unbearably slimy. Lawrence Olivier gives a subtle, soothing performance as a police detective. There's a particularly creepy scene in a doll hospital. Footage of The Zombies (Rod Argent et al.) is inserted gratuitously here and there.

I heard this was going to be remade with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, but then she pulled out. Not sure if the project is still on.


The Hostage

John Carradine in The Hostage (dir. Russell S. Doughten Jr., 1967).

The most striking thing about The Hostage is that it was shot on location in Des Moines. Maybe that's only striking if you've been to Des Moines, so that like me you watch it and go hey, that's Des Moines!

It's not a classic by any stretch, but there is a nice feeling of prosaic suspense throughout. Director Doughten's main claim to fame before this movie was as producer of The Blob, and after it of Christian films, including the A Thief in the Night series. Before I knew Doughten was big on God, I thought the scene where the homeless man played by John Carradine goes into a church to look for a handout was a wickedly funny piece of satire: he's surrounded by portraits of Jesus, and he takes a long look at one of them, in which the Saviour's brows appear to be furrowed menacingly. Carradine scowls back defiantly. Now I realize that those brows were supposed to convey compassion and mercy!

Also fun to see a "young" Harry Dean Stanton (he was basically born fifty, wasn't he?) as a reluctant kidnapper.