Saturday, November 28, 2015

Noir-Vember Quick Picks and Pans

High and Low (aka: Tengoku to Jigoku) (1963) High and Low is film noir Akira Kurosawa style, employing many of the familiar tropes of the genre to explore the darker side of success and fortune. Toshirô Mifune stars as wealthy shoe company executive Kingo Gondo. On the eve of Gondo assuming ownership of the company, his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped for ransom, and he must choose between his livelihood and the life of the boy. The story takes its time to unfold, with the first half confined to virtually one set, Gondo’s house, before taking us outside its confines. The film’s Japanese title, Tengoku to Jigoku, meaning “Heaven and Hell,” aptly describes the contrast between Gondo’s comfortable, sheltered existence on top of a hill, contrasted by the realities of the slum below. We’re afforded time to contemplate his lofty position, as well as the motivations and inner torment of extortionist and victim. Memorable scenes include a jazzy night club, a seedy back alley populated by heroin addicts, and a sequence that masterfully employs a spot of color on an otherwise black and white film. In director/co-writer Kurosawa’s riveting contemplation of crime, no one emerges unscathed or victorious.

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Detour (1945) Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a drifter in a diner, recalls the chain of unfortunate events that led to his peripatetic lifestyle. When his lounge singer girlfriend (Claudia Drake) moves to Los Angeles to pursue her fame and fortune, he sets out on the road after her. His hitchhiking journey becomes disastrous, however, when he winds up with a dead driver. Instead of reporting the incident to the cops, he takes the driver’s car, along with his money and identity. Things turn from bad to worse after Roberts picks up another drifter, Vera (Ann Savage), who’s wise to his transgressions. Savage steals the show with her vitriolic performance. Director Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat) and writer Martin Goldsmith pack a lot into such a short span (the film clocks in at only 68 minutes). It’s decidedly brisk, but never hurried. Roberts is compelling as the unreliable narrator – we’re supposed to believe he’s innocent, but as his life unravels, you’re never quite sure. The tacked on ending, an obvious concession to the Production Code, brings a swift resolution to the ambiguous climax. This is essential viewing for any fan of the genre.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Le Samouraï (1967) Director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Melville’s post-modern film noir doesn’t get hung up on a labyrinthine plot – it’s more about capturing a specific look and feel. Set amidst the rain-soaked streets of Paris, the focus is on laconic hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon), who lives by his own code and embodies honor and style in equal measures. After he’s held by the police, he attempts to track down the former employers who now want him dead. With Costello, it’s the little details that count, as in one scene where he trades a hat and coat with another suspect, and carefully adjusts the brim of his fedora. Nathalie Delon is also memorable as his close-mouthed girlfriend, and Cathy Rosier shines as the piano-playing femme fatale, who witnesses Costello leaving the scene of a crime. Melville paints a picture that turns film noir on its head, where the police seem far less honorable than the criminal, and style is the substance.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Director/co-writer Ida Lupino’s thriller sustains an almost unbearably tense atmosphere from start to finish. Two men (Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip in Mexico experience an abrupt change in plans when they pick up a murderous hitch hiker (William Talman). Talman is chilling as escaped criminal Emmett Myers, who orders the men to assist him with his getaway. The hijacked pals carefully plot against the sociopath, knowing they’re just a means to an end, to be discarded when he’s done. One especially affecting scene, set in a Mexican general store, affirms the friends’ humanity, while reinforcing the antagonist’s barely restrained capacity for evil. Warning: because this movie has fallen into the public domain, be sure to find a good quality copy (The murky version I watched was more noir than film).

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Killing (1956) This stylish early film by Stanley Kubrick wasn’t a favorite of the director’s, but there’s a lot to like about it. Sterling Hayden (who would appear as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove) stars as Johnny Clay, the mastermind of a $2 million race track heist. It’s not too difficult to imagine his menacing clown mask influencing the bank robbery scene in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Although the film is hampered by extraneous narration (a choice Kubrick opposed), it features some outstanding performances. Elisha Cook, Jr. is terrific as the big-talking, obsequious George Peatty, and Marie Windsor is engaging as his two-timing wife, Sherry. Perhaps a voiceover-less version will surface one day, allowing the audience to connect the dots of the elaborate caper on our own.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Classics Revisited: Kiss Me Deadly

(1955) Directed by Robert Aldrich; Written by A.I. Bezzerides; Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane; Starring: Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Gaby Rodgers and Cloris Leachman; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating  ****½

“You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself.” – Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman)

“What is it we are seeking? Diamonds? Rubies? Gold? Perhaps narcotics. How civilized this earth used to be. But as the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous…” – Dr. G.E. Soberin (Albert Dekker)

I’m honored to participate in the Criterion Blogathon, a six-day extravaganza showcasing the premiere distributor’s wildly diverse resume of films. I’d like to extend a huge thanks to organizers Aaron West of CriterionBlues, Kristina from Speakeasy, and Ruth from Silver Screenings. They truly outdid themselves with this one, and set the bar higher for future blogathons. My entry for the blogathon, Kiss Me Deadly, also continues Noir-Vember, my month-long foray into the wild and turbulent world of film noir.

Director Robert Aldrich and writer A.I. Bezzerides polarized critics and film fans with their stylish interpretation of Mickey Spillane’s novel, creating an experience that’s undeniably memorable and influential. Bezzerides disliked the source material, making substantial changes (starting with the excision of a comma from the novel’s title), resulting in a film that was a radical departure from the original story (Unsurprisingly, Spillane hated the script, as well as the finished project). From the opening, backwards-rolling credits, you can tell you’re in for something special. With their version of Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich and company created more than just a pedestrian story about a cocky gumshoe who’s in over his head.

Set in Los Angeles, Kiss Me Deadly explores the seamier side of the City of Angels. As an ex-Los Angelino, it was a treat to see the city as it existed in the mid-20th century. The film crystalizes a moment in time, when some of the formerly posh districts, such as Bunker Hill, had gone to seed.* In accordance with the film’s dark, lurid themes, the film plays fast and loose with the Production Code, pushing the envelope in terms of violence, overt sexuality and implied nudity. According to the DVD commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, the film gave various local censorship boards headaches, and earned a “Condemned” rating from the League of Decency (always a plus, in my book).

* One shot depicts the famous Angels Flight Railway, a funicular that traversed the Bunker Hill district. Thankfully, this one piece of history has been restored to its former glory, albeit relocated to a slightly different location. 

Kiss Me Deadly, as envisioned by Aldrich and Bezzerides, introduced a different kind of private eye to the venerable genre. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is anything but the traditional protagonist, with his thuggish presence and self-serving attitude. He isn’t above roughing up a guy, or manhandling a gal, if he finds out what he’s looking for. In the opening scene, he encounters a young woman, Christina Bailey, in the middle of the road, clad only in a trench coat (Cloris Leachman, in an early role). Instead of displaying concern for her distressed condition, he’s irritated he was forced to swerve to avoid hitting her. As he soon discovers, she’s about to lead him down a rabbit hole into something much deeper, and more sinister than he ever imagined.

Standing as a counterpoint to Hammer’s brashness is Velda (Maxine Cooper), his savvy personal secretary and occasional lover. They share a complex relationship, fraught with ambiguity. She’s more than an employee, but less than a girlfriend, carrying out his dirty work in his investigations of divorce cases, and serving a pseudo-matriarchal role as his confidant. She’s unfazed by his machismo and womanizing tendencies, seeing the dents in his armor.

Kiss Me Deadly boasts an impressive array of standout performances by a host of character actors. As Dr. G.E. Soberin, Albert Dekker exudes equal measures of gentility and menace. His distaste for violence belies the fact he’s not above causing physical harm if it helps him reach his ends. Percy Helton is terrific as an unscrupulous morgue worker* who’s ready to sell out for the right price. Gaby Rodgers shines as Lily Carver, Christina’s friend (and possible lover), who might not be the helpless ingénue she seems to be. On the other end of the spectrum of notable performances, we see too much of minor character Nick “Va Va Voom” (Nick Dennis), Hammer’s mechanic and informant. In Nick’s case, a little goes a very long way, and I was almost happy when he met his untimely demise.

* I can’t help but wonder if Helton’s character served as a template for a similar role, played by John Fiedler in the iconic TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

The film employs one of cinema’s most intriguing and enigmatic plot devices, “The Great Whatsit,”* adding a sci-fi twist to the genre. Although it’s never expressly stated what’s in the nondescript box with leather straps, we can ascertain it contains nuclear material of some sort. Exactly what’s in the box, where it came from, or what anyone plans to do with it remain a mystery. The only tantalizing clues it provides about its terrible nature are suggested by the radiation of heat and intense light, accompanied by a banshee wail. One character makes a direct reference to Pandora’s Box, hinting at the cataclysm that awaits anyone foolish enough to open it. Over the years, this tantalizing conundrum has inspired many filmmakers to create their own versions of the “Great Whatsit.” In Alex Cox’s Repo Man, it’s a car trunk with dead aliens. In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, it’s the glowing, but not directly seen contents of a briefcase. The Ark of the Covenant, as it’s depicted in the climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, likely has similar origins. “The Great Whatsit” arguably finds its way into space in the classic Star Trek episode, “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” And in Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, “What’s in the box?” became “What’s in the Basket?” Whatever the context, the diabolical box has become synonymous with things we shouldn’t be meddling with, and the unfortunate consequences of poking our nose where it shouldn’t go.

* “The Great Whatsit” was solely an invention of the screenwriter, as it wasn’t mentioned in the novel.

The film’s mind-blowing ending took me by surprise the first time, and still raises eyebrows on subsequent viewings. The Criterion edition restores the last minute, making the conclusion somewhat less nihilistic, but no less impacting. The film has left genre fans divided, with some deriding it for its sexism, while others lauding it as a covert feminist commentary on the ‘50s and male-centric culture. As he’s presented here, Mike Hammer isn’t a principled or particularly likeable man, but that’s part of the point, as Aldrich and Bezzerides deconstructed the hero mythos. Kiss Me Deadly signaled the end of an era. It’s a fascinating film that continues to reward upon subsequent viewings, with its ambiguities and nuanced characters. Kiss Me Deadly transcends its pulp origins, and remains one of film noir’s finest moments, and its epitaph.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Gun Crazy

(1950) Directed by Joseph H. Lewis; Written by MacKinlay Kantor and Millard Kaufman (aka: Dalton Trumbo); Based on a story originally published in The Saturday Evening Post by MacKinlay Kantor; Starring: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger, Harry Lewis, Nedrick Young and Russ Tamblyn; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“…Shooting’s what I’m good at. It’s the only thing I like. It’s what I want to do when I grow up.” – Bart Tare (Russ Tamblyn)

A big thanks to Steve from Down Among the “Z” Movies (you can also find him on Twitter through his handle, @amy_surplice) for providing a few choice suggestions for Noir-Vember, including the featured movie du jour, Gun Crazy. Today’s low budget offering might not be as well-known as some other films from the era, but it’s no less vital. It’s a pulpy exploration of greed, lust and murder, ably directed by Joseph H. Lewis, and co-written by MacKinlay Kantor (from his original story) and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (working under the pseudonym Millard Kaufman).

Bart Tare’s infatuation with firearms is established in the opening scene, as he fumbles an attempt to pilfer a revolver from a store window display. In the following courtroom scene, we learn this incident is merely the culmination of a singular obsession that he’s fostered his entire short life. 14-year-old Bart (played by Russ Tamblyn, as “Rusty” Tamblyn) is sentenced to four years in juvenile hall, and subsequently completes a successful stint in the Army, teaching his fellow soldiers how to shoot. After he’s discharged, adult Bart (John Dall) finds his old buddies Clyde and Dave (played by Harry Lewis and Nedrick Young, respectively). They’ve moved on with their lives (Clyde is now a sheriff’s deputy and Dave is a newspaper reporter), but Bart is still struggling with his identity. Everything changes when the friends visit a traveling circus, and he spots the woman of his dreams.

For the first time in his life, he’s captivated by something other than guns, although the object of his desire happens to be a female sharpshooter in a sideshow. From the beginning, Laurie (Peggy Cummins) is the dominant one in their relationship, goading him down a dark path (“I want a guy with spirit and guts.”). Together, they accomplish what might not have been done separately, embarking on a whirlwind crime spree. As they roam from town to town, with one small-time robbery after another, the stakes keep increasing. Bart detests the idea of shooting anyone (his sister Ruby comments, “It’s something about guns that gets him, not killing.”), but Laurie isn’t averse to murder if she can get what she wants. He continually expresses remorse for his actions, but he’s powerless to stop when faced with her formidable charms. Although it’s clear she’ll never have enough to satiate her desire for the better things in life, she talks her naïve partner into one more heist.

It’s surprising that Gun Crazy made it past the Production Code censors, striking savvy audience members right between the eyes with its blatant Freudian imagery and themes. Bart is stuck in an arrested stage of development (what Mr. Freud deemed the phallic stage), feeling empowered by the act of shooting, unable to function professionally, or perhaps sexually, outside of the milieu of guns. In one of the more over-the-top scenes, Laurie straddles a six-shooter between her legs to fire at targets, in a rough mimicry of intercourse. The gun becomes an extended metaphor for sex, control and empowerment. Aside from Bart’s moralistic objections to his current life of crime, and his expressions of regret, there’s something gratifying that compels him to continue down a self-destructive path with Laurie at his side. In the movie’s fog-shrouded climax, they’re immersed in a purgatory, where the worlds of the living and dead merge.

Despite the fact they do awful things, you can’t help but root for Bart and Laurie on some level, and almost want them to get away. But in an era when films were bound by the Code, you know that’s not going to happen. One gets the distinct impression, however, that the overt moralizing is just lip service in a film that paints its gun-blazing duo in romantic tones. Compared to some of its higher profile contemporaries, Gun Crazy won’t win any awards in the dialogue department, but few genre examples provide as pure, pulpy entertainment, or so nakedly flaunt how good it feels to be bad. Sure, there might be better film noirs out there, but few are as deliciously fun, delivering the sort of lurid situations found in dime store novels. Just be sure to check your moral compass at the door before watching this one, and you’ll have a good time.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Out of the Past

(1947) Directed by Jacques Tourneur; Written by Geoffrey Homes (aka: Daniel Mainwaring); Based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes; Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, and Virginia Huston; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ****½

“…How did I know she’d ever show up? I didn’t. What stopped her from taking a boat to Chile or Guatemala? Nothing. How big a chump could you get to be?” – Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum)

What makes a film noir a film noir? While no two people may agree on the genre’s constraints, you know what you’re looking at the moment you see it. Throughout Noir-vember, my month-long exploration of these distinctive films, I hope to delve deeper, and create my own definition. Don’t expect any new revelations, but every new title (for me at least) promises to be an education on this vibrant and diverse category. Many films may contain similar themes (a private eye caught in a web of conspiracy beyond his understanding or control, a shifty dame, duplicitous friends, an urban jungle, etc…), but the permutations are endless. The brilliance, after all, is in the details, as different filmmakers shuffle around these ingredients like professional chefs interpreting a time-worn recipe. One of the finest examples of the genre, blending all of these disparate and familiar elements, is Out of the Past. 

Based on the novel Build My Gallows High (which was the British release title) by Geoffrey Homes (aka: Daniel Mainwaring), and masterfully directed by Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past features snappy dialogue and a twisty plot to weave its tale about a man in over his head. Shot on location in San Francisco and Bridgeport, California, Mexico City and Acapulco, Tourneur establishes time, place and mood, contrasting the bucolic with urban. Most of the film’s scenes are at night, setting the melancholy tone, and casting its characters in literal and figurative darkness.

Robert Mitchum stars as ex-private detective Jeff Bailey, who runs a gas station in a quiet little Northern California town. He thought he escaped his past life, until his former employer’s hired goon starts sniffing around. Mitchum is perfect in the role as a man steeped in regret and a longing for a simpler life. His impassive, sleepy-eyed expression belies a calculating mind and a storm raging within. We learn about Jeff’s backstory through a flashback, recalling how he was hired by the mob boss Whit (Kirk Douglas) to find the woman that shot him and absconded with his $40,000. Jeff tracks her down in Mexico, but ends up falling in love with her. Mitchum delivers his lines with dry humor (“That’s one way to be clever, look like an idiot.”) and a world-weary heart, as one who’s seen it all and done it all. When he suspects he’s being manipulated by his employer, he comments, “…all I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” He’s resigned to his fate, aware that he’s walking into a trap, but powerless to stop it. All he can do is hope to reverse the outcome.  

Jane Greer* excels as femme fatale Kathie Moffat, easily the film’s most complex character. She’s capable of displaying tenderness one moment and the viciousness of a caged animal in the next. Kathie plays both sides for her own ends, changing allegiances like a new ensemble. She’s a far cry from the female characters depicted in the past, who sit passive by the sidelines. Her innocent ingénue act is merely a cover for a scheming cobra, ready to strike. She’s an architect of her fate, judiciously balancing her hatred for Whit with her love for Jeff, but never at the expense of her own interest. By comparison, Jeff’s girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) is purposefully bland, representing a hopeful future that remains out of reach.   

* Fun fact: Greer was the girlfriend of Howard Hughes, who owned RKO Studios at the time.

Douglas shines in his second film appearance, as kingpin Whit, who presents a deceptively amiable façade, but hides a violent streak. Despite the fact that Jeff has betrayed him, he’s determined to bring him back into the fold. He manipulates people like chess pieces, and is determined to hold onto whatever is his at any cost, with the tenacity of a remora (“I fire people, but nobody quits me.”).

It’s worth noting another character that doesn’t receive much attention, but deserves more praise. As opposed to the flashier roles, there’s a nice low-key performance by former child actor Dickie Moore as a young deaf/mute man who works for Jeff at the gas station. He conveys so much with so little, bringing the film to a conclusion with merely a nod.

Out of the Past reminds us that film noir is all about contrasts: shadow and light, the bucolic versus urban, glamorous versus plain, and submissive versus dominant. Screenwriter Homes weaves an elaborate story that commands our attention, but manages to stay one step ahead. But as author Jim Ursini observes in his DVD commentary, film noir is more about the “why” of characters and their psychology, rather than the “how,” or machinations of the plot. The climax subverts the audience’s expectations, leading to a “happy” ending that depends on your definition of happy. Out of the Past is a classic example of film noir, and a fine introduction to the genre. It exemplifies what this type of movie does so well, taking us on a dark ride into the seamier recesses of the soul.