Wednesday, March 31, 2010

#25: Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)

Released: February 14, 1946

Charles Vidor; Screenplay: Jo Eisinger based on a story by E.A. Ellington; Cinematography: Rudolph Maté; Music: Hugo Friedhofer; Producer: Virginia Van Upp; Studio: Columbia Pictures

Cast: Rita Hayworth (Gilda Mundson Farrell), Glenn Ford (Johnny Farrell), George Macready (Ballin Mundson), Joseph Calleia (Detective Maurice Obregon), Steven Geray (Uncle Pio), Joe Sawyer (Casey), Gerald Mohr (Captain Delgado), Mark Roberts (Gabe Evans), Ludwig Donath (German), Don Douglas (Thomas Langford), Lionel Royce (German), Saul Martell (Little Man), George J. Lewis (Huerta), Rosa Rey (Maria)

- “Gilda, are you decent?”

This won’t be the case for the older visitors of the blog (I kid, I kid!), but those that are closer to my own age can probably admit to first being exposed to this gem of 1940s Hollywood through another, more recent movie – The Shawshank Redemption. Before I ever had any idea about whom or what Gilda was, had the slightest idea about film noir, or had even heard of Glenn Ford, I knew about the most famous scene in this entire movie. I knew that Shawshank’s Red didn’t want to miss the part in the prison film screening where Rita Hayworth “does that shit with her hair.” The reaction that such a simple flip of her strawberry blond locks got from the prisoners always fascinated me. The sensuality of such a move might have been dulled over time – how can it not have been, with the amount of sexuality that is now so commonplace – but when I finally saw Gilda for the first time, I was equally as captivated by the screen presence of the stunning Rita Hayworth as were the fictional inmates of Shawshank State Prison. She is the focal point of all that happens. There are a number of interesting things going on in this film, but everything eventually returns to her. The title is no coincidence – it is all about Gilda, meaning all about Rita.

Stricter definitions of noir might exclude this one as well, but it is so well-established as being a part of any respectable noir library that I’m not even going to try and list its credentials. Every reputable film noir source that I have seen includes it, so whether the individual elements add up to a noir or not, it’s reached the point where it doesn’t even matter. Even if it doesn’t meet a definition – such as at Goodfellas visitor Tony D’Ambra’s Films – the perception is that it is a classic noir. And I happen to think that the perception is correct.

This is another noir set outside inner city United States, instead taking place in Buenos Aires. American gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is on the verge of being jumped for his winnings after a dockside dice game, when a stranger with a stiletto saves him. The stranger turns out to be Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a wealthy casino operator who invites Johnny to stop by his own establishment in the future. Johnny does just this, using his full bag of tricks to beat Mundson’s casino out of big money at the blackjack table. Rather than rough Johnny up, Mundson is convinced to hire Johnny as his right hand man in running the gambling operations. Things are going smoothly until Mundson returns from a vacation with his new wife, the dazzling Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Mundson is completely unaware of the fact, but it slowly begins to emerge that Johnny and Gilda have a history as former lovers, with the result that the two now loath each other. While the love triangle plays out, Mundson and his operations are imperiled by visiting Germans, whom Johnny notices Mundson pays off by rigging spins of the roulette wheel. With the Germans constantly dropping into the casino and investigators swarming around everyone, Johnny tries to navigate these various currents – made all the more difficult by Gilda’s unceasing machinations.

I have never been blown away by the acting chops of Glenn Ford, but he is quite good as Johnny Farrell. While this is not my favorite noir that Ford starred in (we’ll get to that eventually), this could be my favorite performance by him in a noir. The dynamic that is established in between Johnny, Gilda and Mundson is intriguing throughout. What makes it so interesting is that (at least in my case), you can never get a firm grasp on where everyone fits. The relationship between Johnny and Mundson has undeniable homoerotic overtones (nothing in your face, but it’s there), so is Gilda someone who is coming between them as they grow closer? Or is it perhaps that both men are so infatuated with Gilda that they are eventually driven apart? It could be that Gilda really is the ultimate femme fatale who just enjoys playing off two suitors against each other and watching the carnage that she creates. Gilda is obviously a selfish person, so it is hard not to see her as someone that is deliberately manipulating things. But at the same time, the thought always remains that rather than being jealous of each other, Johnny and Ballin are actually jealous of watching Gilda grow closer to the other friend.

Even without trying to analyze the film at that level, it needs to be seen just to take in Rita Hayworth in all of her glory. When someone says “Rita Hayworth” or pictures the superstar, it’s probably Gilda that first comes to mind. It’s hard to get images of her from this film out of your head, whether it is that legendary introduction or her sitting on a card table in a nightclub playing the guitar and singing. Many working behind the camera shine as well, with future director Rudolph Maté contributing photography that is gorgeous. It's not as dark as other noirs, but the use of shadows in the nightclub interiors, and particularly the short time spent on the Buenos Aires docks, is wonderful. And don't overlook the musical contributions to the film, with Anita Ellis providing the voice to Hayworth's actions in memorable numbers like "Put the Blame on Mame."

Put simply, this is just a very entertaining noir.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

#26: The Letter (William Wyler, 1940)

Released: November 22, 1940

Director: William Wyler; Screenplay: Howard Koch based on the play W. Somerset Maugham; Cinematography: Tony Gaudio; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Hal B. Wallis; Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Bette Davis (Leslie Crosbie), Herbert Marshall (Robert Crosbie), James Stephenson (Howard Joyce), Gale Sondergaard (Mrs. Hammond), Frieda Inescort (Dorothy Joyce), Bruce Lester (John Withers), Sen Yung (Ong Chi Seng), Elizabeth Inglis (Adele Ainsworth), Cecil Kellaway (Prescott), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cooper), Willie Fung (Chung Hi), Tetsu Komai (Head Boy)

- "Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and not know the first thing about her..."

William Wyler might not be a name that immediately pops to mind in regard to a film noir countdown, and this 1940 movie from the celebrated director might not initially be considered when folks guess the films of this Top 30, but it is a longtime favorite. This is certainly a most personal choice, as the noir credentials of the film are not as strong as some of the other standards of the genre – it actually comes before the classic period, is set on an Asian plantation rather than traditional urban environs, and at times lays the melodrama on thick. But I still think that it qualifies for a countdown of this scope. The moral ambiguity of almost every character involved in the murder mystery, in conjunction with the wonderfully dark cinematography from Tony Gaudio, means that there is enough similarity between The Letter and other noir staples to justify its inclusion. Interestingly enough, the more noir books and resources that I have viewed recently, the more that I have noticed other places including it among their noir rankings and lists, so I’m not alone on this one. Plus, it’s a film that I simply adore and I have no intention of passing up the opportunity to pen some thoughts on it.

William Wyler and star Bette Davis worked together on three films, all positively received, but The Letter remains the most impressive for me. It is as much of a mystery as it is a noir. The film opens on a rubber plantation in Malaya, with gunshots ringing throughout the property as the lady of the house, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), guns a man down on her front steps. Crosbie claims that she killed the man because he visited the house while Leslie’s husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) was away and tried to violate her. Finding the circumstances to be suspicious, the authorities arrest Leslie and move her to a Singapore prison to stand trial for murder. Leslie sticks by her story of acting in self-defense and is able to convince everyone of its veracity – except for family friend and her defense attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). Joyce’s suspicions are heightened even further when he is approached by a native (Sen Yung) who notifies him that a letter exists that proves that Leslie and the slain man were actually lovers. Realizing that this letter would all but doom his client, Joyce faces a moral dilemma over how to handle the situation. Does he purchase the letter and keep the dirty little secret? Or, does he go to trial and let justice play out? Joyce is caught between husband and wife, unsure of how to handle the situation on both a personal and professional level. On one hand he feels a responsibility as an attorney, but there is an allure that surrounds the seductive Leslie that seems to manipulate him into doing what he asks.

The technical ability of Wyler is on display right from the beginning, as the movie starts with one of the great opening shots in all of cinema. Wyler uses a tracking shot to guide the viewer from a gorgeous view of the moonlight dancing over darkened fields, to a shot of a rubber tree being drained, then to a group of local workers relaxing after a long day, and finally to a small bird that is calm until the fateful shots ring out across the plantation. The camera then moves quickly to the entrance of the house in time to see a wounded man stagger out of the door and Leslie Crosbie coming up behind him and unloading the coup de grace. It is among the most memorable tracking shots that I have seen and is an impressive way to start the movie. Wyler works very well with director of photography Tony Gaudio. The use of moonlight and the way that it slices through everything on camera – cutting through blinds, rubber trees, gates – is gorgeous. I don’t know enough about the production to say where the movie was shot, but I’d bet almost anything that it was on a Warners studio lot. And that makes the visual achievement even more impressive, as Wyler and Gaudio are able to truly capture the dark, exotic feel of Malaya.

The reputation of Bette Davis is not one that I need to build up, but she gives another marvelous performance here. In fact, in terms of personal taste, I would place her turn here behind only her career-best role as Margo Channing in All About Eve. As Leslie, Davis is much calmer and understated, developing Leslie as manipulative, but in a much more calculating way. As good as Davis is, though, this is without question James Stephenson’s film. The moral flip-flopping that his character goes through is the most important aspect of the story. He is completely torn on what is the right course of action. Pulled from all sides, he seems to believe that there is honor in both options – refuse the extortion demands and uphold his oath as a lawyer, or be complicity in the lie and cover-up and avoid embarrassing and hurting his longtime friend. Stephenson is able to put across the anguish that Howard experiences. It is also interesting to note the ending that the Hays Code forced Warner Brothers to add onto the film, not allowing a murderess to get away cleanly. Oddly enough, I think this is one instance where a Code-forced ending actually works quite well. The ending is certainly a memorable one.

The Letter was well-received upon its initial release, receiving seven Academy Award nominations (Davis, Stephenson and Gaudio were all nominated, along with the great Max Steiner for Best Score) but came away without a single win. Its reputation today remains strong, but it is often overlooked in terms of Wyler’s overall body of work. It just might be my favorite film that he ever made.

Monday, March 29, 2010

#27: The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)

Released: February 13, 1955

Director: Joseph H. Lewis; Screenplay: Philip Yordan; Cinematography: John Alton; Music: David Raskin; Producer: Sidney Harmon; Studio: Allied Artists

Cast: Cornel Wilde (Police Lt. Leonard Diamond), Richard Conte (Mr. Brown), Brian Donlevy (Joe McClure), Jean Wallace (Susan Lowell), Robert Middleton (Police Capt. Peterson), Lee Van Cleef (Fante), Earl Holliman (Mingo), Helen Walker (Alicia Brown), Jay Adler (Sam Hill), John Hoyt (Nils Dreyer), Ted de Corsia (Bettini), Helene Stanton (Rita)

- “First is first and second is nobody…”

I remember when I first made a conscious decision to really dig into film noir, I began visiting various noir web sites and message boards in search of as many recommendations as I could find. I got some great advice in the process, but as I would do for any newcomer to noir who asked for names of films, the majority of the recommendations centered on those that enjoyed a strong reputation in cinema in general, not just noir – Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, and similar bona fide classics. The advice was still important, pointing me in the right direction on a number of films, but I remember one post in particular when somebody basically said this to me: “All of the recommendations so far definitely point out the most important films in noir, but if you want to see the best, do yourself a favor and get a copy of ‘The Big Combo.’” I promptly did just that, ordering the DVD and quickly realizing it was one of the finest noirs that I had yet seen. The more interested I became in noir, and the more that I read and learned about it, I came to realize that The Big Combo also enjoys a strong reputation in noir circles. Concerning film in general, though, it is not often talked about in the same breath as those previously mentioned classics, but it deserves to be.

Like yesterday’s director, Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis is assessed as one of the finest directors to emerge from Poverty Row. Lewis produced two highly thought of noirs with 1950’s Gun Crazy and this gem that came near the end of the classic noir cycle. Between the two, Gun Crazy enjoys more widespread critical acclaim, but there isn’t much of a debate in my own very personal assessment – this is the best film that Lewis ever made. Perhaps not the “greatest” or most important, but for me it is his most entertaining and best-looking.

As is common throughout noir, obsession abounds in this tale about one police officer who is determined to unravel the mystery surrounding a crime boss. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) follows everything that mob boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) does. He tracks his movements, his illicit operations, his business partners, and even the women that he pursues. His entire life is devoted to toppling the Brown syndicate. Brown, meanwhile, is equally as enamored with thrill-seeking society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), who stays with Brown despite the horrible treatment that she receives from him. The obsessions of each of these characters seem too strong for any of them to break, meaning that things become explosive when the three of them become entangled.

The thing that initially struck me about this film is that for a so-called B-movie, it boasts an incredibly strong cast full names that are recognizable to cineastes of today. I don’t know how large its budget was, but it was big enough to land noir staples like Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde and Brian Donlevy. Even with such names in the credits, the movie maintains the visceral, gritty feel of the best B-noirs. To be sure, Lewis must be given much credit for this strength, but the biggest factor in maintaining this atmosphere is the photography of John Alton. It is nothing short of divine. The stark contrasts between black and white are almost dream-like, with fog rising around and obscuring characters to create hallucinatory effects. Just look at the screen cap below – it is probably the most iconic shot in all of film noir, composed and executed by the greatest cinematographer to ever work in the style. Words can’t do justice to how impressive Alton’s work is in this film. He might have built his reputation on his outstanding collaborations with Anthony Mann, but he enjoyed his crowning achievement in The Big Combo. Still, I don’t want to overlook how good Lewis is throughout. The man continuously found inventive ways to stage scenes, doing ingenuous things to amp up the tension. Little touches like Mr. Brown using his partner’s hearing aid to torture the rival Diamond. Or when Brown’s same partner is set up by would-be conspirators and before the gunshots start flying, Brown removes the hearing aid. When the scene then continues, we see the muzzle flashes and the reactions from those involved, but the whole sequence is filmed in silence, mimicking what the horrified man is going through.

This is one that needs to be gone into fresh, so going into unnecessary specifics regarding the plot would be uncalled for. I'm assuming that most people reading this have already seen it, but I'm sure there are a few who have not and I want to spoil nothing. What I will say is that as I'm posting this on Sunday afternoon and reading through it, it has me questioning my own placement. #27 is an incredible compliment, but this is one that I might regret not moving it even higher. A truly great film.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

#28: Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

Released: November 30, 1945

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer; Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney based on the novel by Goldsmith; Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline; Music: Leo Erdody; Producer: Leon Fromkess; Studio: Producers Releasing Corporation

Cast: Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Ann Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake (Sue Harvey), Edmund MacDonald (Charles Haskell, Jr.), Tim Ryan (Nevada Diner Proprietor), Esther Howard (Holly, Diner Waitress), Pat Gleeson (Joe, Truck Driver at Diner), Don Brodie (Used Car Salesman)

- “That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you…”

Peter Bogdanovich summed it up best when commenting on the work of Edgar G. Ulmer: “Nobody has ever made good pictures faster or for less money.” This most definitely applies to Ulmer’s most famous film, Detour. The circumstances surrounding its production are now legendary in noir circles. Made for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), which was considered low budget even among Poverty Row contemporaries, it probably would have been impossible to make Detour any faster or cheaper. Instead of following the detailed, 130-page script that Martin Goldsmith adapted from his own novel, Ulmer had to completely slash it, cutting and pasting what he could in order to produce it as quickly as the studio demanded. The entire movie was shot in six days and for under $20,000 dollars, and it looks every bit as cheap and thrown together as one would expect. It has no business being as powerful as it is, but it has remained enthralling for generations of cult followers and maintains a reputation as a cornerstone of the film noir canon.

The best analogy that I can produce to try and explain the appeal of Detour is comparing it to the music of raw blues or garage rock. Just as those forms of music are appealing because of the simplicity and pure emotion, Detour derives its power precisely because it maintains such a raw, filthy atmosphere. Let’s face it, the low budget surroundings and horrendous video quality are perfectly suited to themes as dark as those dealt with in film noir. Since I’ve already quoted one big name movie personality, I might as well add another. Roger Ebert put it perfectly when he said: “’Detour’ is an example of material finding the appropriate form.” This is absolutely true. Detour looks horrible – as it should. Al sees his life as having become a walking nightmare and whether intentional or not, Ulmer’s shoestring budget and lack of resources only serves to reinforce this.

The story is simple, coincidental, and probably preposterous depending upon how you take it. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a New York nightclub piano player who decides to travel cross-country to reunite with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue left for Los Angeles weeks before with hopes of making it big in Hollywood, but things do not go as planned. Unable to wait any longer, Al decides on a whim to surprise her in L.A. Hitchhiking his way across the country, Roberts is picked up by a gambler named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who offers to take him all the way to the coast. Continually popping pills as he drives, it turns out that Haskell has a heart condition and while Al is driving for him, Haskell slips off to sleep and never wakes up. Fearing that the police would pin the death on him, instead of alerting the authorities, Roberts decides to just assume Haskell’s identity – along with his money – and continue traveling. Things are going smoothly until he decides to pick up a female hitchhiker. The rough looking Vera (Ann Savage) turns out to the person that Haskell had picked up and kicked out of his car before stopping for Roberts. She knows that Roberts is a fake and threatens to run to the police if Al doesn’t do whatever she asks.

There are no performances that one would show in an acting class, but Tom Neal is incredibly effective in playing Al as the weary traveler who feels like the entire world is working against him. For the short period that he is on-screen, Edmund MacDonald is very good as the gambler on the cusp of hitting it big, recounting his struggles with woman and bookmaking. Ann Savage is seductively evil. But the real star remains Ulmer and the small things that he does to create a genuinely great movie. His cost-cutting and time-saving practices are almost funny to consider now, doing things like flipping negatives so as to be able to show Al moving in different directions. Most importantly for my reading of the film is the way that he returns to the same eerie shot of Al’s face, with everything around him blanketed in darkness except for the a strip of light that reveals his eyes. As Al recounts the story in a flashback, Ulmer continually returns to these eyes of a madman, adding a whole new layer to the film. This crazed look, combined with the rambling, incoherent nature of much of the narration, still makes me wonder if the entire story is not one demented man trying to rationalize his actions. Unable to cope with what he has done – killing the man who picked him up, murdering someone else later – he instead blames everything on Fate. Nothing is ever his fault; it is always Fate that is out to get him. This is not reliable information that we are receiving. I don’t know, maybe I’ve seen too many David Lynch films, but this is the feeling I get every time I watch it.

Detour remains a marvel and its legacy baffling to those that don’t care for it. I don’t know if an appreciation of Detour can be acquired. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the film will either appeal to you at a very gut level or be far too camp to enjoy. For me, I don’t know that another noir has ever captured the grim outlook and sense of doom that permeates all of noir better than Ulmer does in Detour.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

#29: Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)

Released: April 1950 (United Kingdom)

Director: Jules Dassin; Screenplay: Jo Eisinger based on the novel by Gerald Kersch; Cinematography: Max Greene; Music: Franz Waxman (United States) and Benjamin Frankel (United Kingdom); Producer: Samuel G. Engel; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Richard Widmark (Harry Fabian), Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol), Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross), Hugh Marlowe (Adam Dunne), Frank L. Sullivan (Phil Nosseross), Herbert Lom (Kristo), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Gregorious the Great), Mike Mazurki (The Strangler), Ada Reeve (Molly), Charles Farrell (Mickey Beer), Ken Richmond (Nikolas of Athens), Edward Chapman (Hoskins)

- "You don't know what you're getting into..."

With subpoenas ready to be unsealed and personalities throughout Hollywood on the verge of being called before the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions regarding their political persuasions, suspected leftist sympathizer Jules Dassin scrambled to make it out of the country before the authorities tracked him down. Hightailing it to London, well out of reach of any potential subpoena servers, Dassin next had to quickly find a script and begin work before studio bosses yielded to pressure to blackball him. It is amazing to consider that in the face of such pressure, and with the mad dash that took place to find a suitable story and screenplay, that Dassin produced what many consider to be the finest film of his career. Mirroring the struggle that his professional and personal life had become, Night and the City is without question the bleakest vision that Dassin ever expressed in cinema. This one is dark, without any real winners, remaining as bleak and pessimistic as any film of the entire era.

Richard Widmark is one of the most celebrated of leading noir actors, but his turn as Harry Fabian may be the best role of his career. If it is not quite as bombastic as his blistering Tommy Udo, it is only because Fabian is nowhere near as sadistic as the murderous Udo. But Fabian makes up for this deficiency with his unbridled ambition and scheming. Fabian is a smalltime hoodlum, a tout for a local nightclub that makes his money by steering customers to his employer’s establishment. At the same time, he is constantly on the lookout for potential new scores. As a result of his scams and thefts, Harry is constantly being pursued by past victims and creditors. To escape such pursuers, Harry often hides out in the apartment of his naïve girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney), who also occasionally serves as the bankroll for his harebrained plans. All of his past plans have failed, but he soon believes that he has hit the jackpot. He plots to take over the professional wrestling industry in London, teaming with famed wrestler Gregorious the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko). But the plan is harder than it sounds, as Gregorious’ son Kristo (Herbert Lom), a powerful racketeer, currently runs the business and has no plans of relinquishing control. Playing father against son, partner against partner – really anybody against everybody but himself – Harry’s only goal is to cash in personally.

There are no forced happy endings in Night and the City. Things feel irrevocably doomed from the start and that mood never lets up. What makes it so distinctive is that the doom of it all almost feels correct. Touring the underworld of London, there are few characters presented that are in the least bit sympathetic. Fabian, who I suppose is the nominal hero, is far from likable. His boss and partners Phil Nosseros (Francis L. Sullivan) Helen Nosseros (Googie Withers) are only slightly less ambitious and ruthless than Harry. Kristo is identified as a leading hoodlum and racketeer. Even though he is being pitted against his father, it’s hard to feel sorry for an unrepentant hood. Mary, I suppose garners some sympathy, as she seems to want nothing but peace for her completely opposite boyfriend. Sill, Gregorious remains the only one that I see as a true victim. All of this means that while the nihilistic nature of everything remains jarring, in some weird way it is fitting. And perhaps that is what makes it so disturbing.

Never did a Jules Dassin film look better than Night and the City. The photography of the streets of London is the perfect look for a film noir, filmed to as ominous and dark as anything set in New York or Los Angeles. The night clubs and streets of London are shot in such a way to make them feel unbearably claustrophobic, reinforcing the fact that while London may be a big city, eventually Fabian is going to run out of places to hide from his problems. The contrast between light and dark is as stark here as anywhere else in noir.

The rating here may be a bit low, but personal preference is an even greater factor in trying to separate these final thirty. There is no denying the power of this film and what an incredible achievement it is in the career of the great Jules Dassin.

Friday, March 26, 2010

#30: Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

Released: October 11, 1944

Director: Otto Preminger; Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt based on the novel by Vera Caspary; Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle; Music: David Raksin; Producer: Otto Preminger; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Gene Tierney (Laura Hunt), Dana Andrews (Mark McPherson), Clifton Webb (Waldo Lydecker), Vincent Price (Shelby Carpenter), Judith Anderson (Ann Treadwell)

- “I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes…”

Paraphrasing a response made by Goodfella’s regular Doniphon (who runs the outstanding The Long Voyage movie blog) in discussions concerning Martin Scorsese’s latest release Shutter Island, I remember him saying that there is something incredibly romantic and appealing about a man’s obsession with a lost or unattainable love. He made the remark while commenting on the fact that many of his favorite films are centered on such a theme. Our taste is quite similar in this regard and probably accounts for our passion for some of the same movies – Vertigo, The Black Dahlia, Shutter Island. This theme might be even more forceful in Otto Preminger’s classically elegant noir Laura. The degree to which Detective Mark McPherson wants to believe in the idealized portrait of the flawless Laura Hunt is unreal, to the point that whenever I watch the film I can’t help but wonder whether the second half of the film is in fact a fantasy.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is called into investigate the murder of advertising executive and New York City socialite Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He begins his investigation with the noted gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the man known to have “discovered” Laura. Gleaning all of his information through flashbacks, Lydecker recounts for McPherson how he met Laura and how the two grew incredibly close. Lydecker as the older uncle-like figure and Laura as the impressionable, bright-eyed newcomer to the big city. From Lydecker, McPherson then begins to hear the stories of the others closest to Laura. He meets Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s supposed fiancé, and the archenemy of Lydecker. The enmity between the two potential suitors is obvious. Also thrown into the mix is Laura’s aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who is alarmingly close to her niece’s boyfriend. Each person paints a glowing picture of Laura, representing themselves as devoted to her. But there is something being buried by each witness, key details they want to keep from McPherson. Still, McPherson is infatuated by the portrait that has been painted of the victim. Accepting this romanticized idea, he actually begins to fall in love with this woman (or at least the personality) that he has never met. At the same time, the deeper that McPherson digs into her past, the more that he realizes any one of those around Laura could have been responsible for her downfall.

seems the most apt comparison, at least to my mind. Stylistically, Laura is nowhere near as dark or expressionistic as a number of other noirs that appear in this countdown. The noir credentials are established by the uncertainty swirling around _everybody_ in the film. Is Laura really the angelic woman that each person seems to claim her to be? If so, then why would anybody plot her murder? The fact that everyone around Laura is trying to hide something, however innocuous, makes things even more ambiguous. The uncertainty of it all can be felt. Even though the actual character of Laura Hunt doesn’t appear in the flesh until well into the movie, the power of the presence dominates everything. The idea of what Laura represents becomes an obsession for every character. Lydecker obsesses over the doe-eyed young woman that he discovered. Shelby is a schemer, but he undoubtedly becomes fixated on the opportunities that Laura can open for him. McPherson quickly becomes mesmerized by Laura, for what exact reason I have never completely unraveled. But something about her completely consumes him. Obsession hangs over everything.

Otto Preminger is completely in control throughout. His camera moves with an Ophüls-like grace at times – just watch the times when it glides throughout Laura’s or Lydecker’s apartments, following everything that McPherson does as he performs his detective work. Things are so smooth, in fact, that I think it’s easy to take everything completely at face value and read the movie as one well-made whodunit. At the same time, I don’t know how popular such a view is, but I can’t help but at least see the possibility that Laura’s reemergence, very much alive, as being an extension of McPherson’s obsession. The way that Preminger films her entrance, with McPherson drifting off to sleep while staring at Laura’s portrait and then suddenly she appears as if from a dream, seems like a fantasy to me. I haven’t watched it closely enough to say whether such a reading actually holds up to real scrutiny, but I can’t help but feel a dreamlike quality to everything that happens after Laura’s hallucinatory entrance.

There isn’t a single weak performance in the film. In fact, there are a number of superlative ones, with Clifton Webb turning in one of the best aristocratically sleazy performances in all of noir. Laura remains a shining example of the studio system of the 1940s and a wonderful noir.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

#31: Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

Released: August 13, 1949

Director: Byron Haskin; Screenplay: Roy Huggins; Cinematography: William C. Mellor; Music: R. Dale Butts; Producer: Hunt Stromberg; Studio: Hunt Stromberg Productions

Lizabeth Scott (Jane Palmer), Don DeFore (Don Blake), Dan Duryea (Danny Fuller), Arthur Kennedy (Alan Palmer), Kristine Miller (Kathy Palmer), Barry Kelley (Lt. Breach), David Clarke (Sharber)

- “You haven’t anything to hide, have you?”

To me, Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears is the quintessential underappreciated B-noir of the 1940s. Boasting much of the low-budget splendor that Detour is often praised for, Too Late for Tears takes shoddy production, an over-the-top pulpy script, and direction and set design aiming to make things as dark as possible, and ends up producing one of my all-time favorite noirs. In terms of low budget masterpieces, it ranks among the very best of the genre, only slightly behind more celebrated classics like the previously mentioned Detour.

The story is another instance of one coincidence leading to unforeseeable ramifications for those involved. When Alan Palmer (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Jane (Lizabeth Scott) are driving through Hollywood on their way to the party of a business acquaintance, they have a spat over the host’s wife. As a result of their argument, the car swerves to the side of the road and its lights begin flashing. The flashing lights are mistaken by an oncoming car as a signal, so as that car passes it tosses a bag of cash into the Palmer’s backseat and keeps going. Opening the bag, the couple discover that it is stuffed full of cash. Before they have time to think, the car that was actually supposed to receive the money emerges. Acting quickly, Jane jumps into the driver’s seat and takes off. When they make it home safely, Alan argues that they should turn the money over to the police immediately, realizing the potential trouble that they could find themselves in. Jane, on the other hand, argues that they should hold onto the cash. She manages to sweet talk her husband into holding onto the money for at least a few days and they stash the bag in a Union Station locker.

Thinking that they are only keeping the money until they decide what to do with it, Alan is shocked to learn that while he is away his wife is going on lavish spending sprees. Still, Jane manages to keep Alan at bay concerning the money, but her machinations are complicated when corrupt police detective Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) pays her a visit and makes it clear that he knows she has the money. Not wanting to be completely cut out from the score, Jane cuts a deal with Fuller – she’ll split the money with him. Eventually, not even this will appease the rapacious Jane, as she knows that Alan will never consent to such a deal. So rather than drop everything, she instead conspires with Fuller to murder her husband and ultimately end up with all the money for herself.

I won’t go into any greater specifics, as to do so would detract a bit from the experience of a first-time viewer. If you enjoy a pulpy tale, with plenty of twists to keep the unsuspecting viewer guessing, then you’ll certainly enjoy this story. The actual twists and turns, though, aren’t as important as is the incredibly simple premise I outlined earlier – the idea of how one chance event, and how one responds to it, can be dramatically alter one’s life. Alan’s initial reaction is to turn the bag of money over to the police and be done with it. He spots what a trap the money could be. But for Jane, who hides her aspirations for wealth and affluence under her façade of the happy housewife, the bag being tossed into the backseat is the catalyst that unleashes her fantasies. Her ambition starts out sensible enough, as she pleads with her husband claiming that she simply wants them to enjoy a life without worrying about finances. It seems a reasonable argument. But the minute that her plans are threatened, it becomes obvious that her ambition is completely unbridled. This underlying, gradually building ambition is sold perfectly by Lizabeth Scott. And it’s not an easy role to sell, as Jane is not initially identified as a likely femme fatale. She seems like a traditional postwar homemaker who is simply tempted by a stash of cash. As she morphs into such a ruthless, conniving personality, it is a bit shocking.

Despite the great qualities possessed by the film, it is yet another in the long line of noirs that lacks a proper DVD release. In fact, it is a public domain film that can be watched around the Internet, with the best version I have come across being at It can also be obtained in budget film noir box sets, but the quality of nearly all of these is downright horrible. Because of the level of production at the time of it was filmed, it is a movie – again, similar to something like Detour – that is never going to have pristine quality. Still, it deserves much better exposure than it currently receives. Another tragically under-seen noir that should be required viewing for all film noir fanatics.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

#32: Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947)

Released: August 27, 1947

Director: Henry Hathaway; Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky; Cinematography: Norbert Brodine; Music: David Buttolph; Producer: Fred Kohlmar; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Victor Mature (Nick Bianco), Brian Donlevy (Assistant District Attorney Louis D’Angelo), Coleen Gray (Nettie), Richard Widmark (Tommy Udo), Taylor Holmes (Earl Howser), Howard Smith (Warden), Karl Malden (Sergeant William Cullen), Anthony Ross (Big Eddie Williams), Millard Mitchell (Detective Shelby), Temple Texas (Buster), Jay Jostyn (District Attorney), J. Scott Smart (Skeets)

- “You know what I do to squealers? I let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin' it over…”

One of the biggest myths of classic Hollywood is that Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death is worthwhile solely because of the over-the-top screen debut of Richard Widmark. To be certain, Widmark’s performance as bloodthirsty hoodlum Tommy Udo is incendiary, so it is understandable that it would overshadow other elements of the film. It’s unfortunate, because there is so much more to it than just Widmark. Victor Mature turns in a fine performance as Nick Bianco and the film as a whole boasts a nice mix of Hollywood veterans (Brian Donlevy) and future stars (Karl Malden). But guiding it all is the steady hand of Henry Hathaway, who flawlessly combines realistic location shooting with Norbert Brodine’s classy cinematography to craft a great movie.

Mature is Nick Bianco, a professional thief who tries to provide for his family through various heists. On Christmas Eve, when he and a group of hoodlums rob a Manhattan jewelry store, an alarm is sounded and Nick is not able to make it out of the building. Apprehended by police, Nick is grilled over who his partners were in the robbery. District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) offers him a light sentence in return for fingering the other men, but sticking true to the code of the streets, Nick refuses. Packed off to Sing Sing with a 20-year sentence, Nick does his time as best he can, until he learns that his depressed and lonely wife has committed suicide. Learning from former babysitter Nettie (Coleen Gray) that his two children have been relocated to an orphanage, Nick realizes that he desperately needs to get out of prison and take care of his kids. Nick contacts DA D’Angelo to provide information on his compatriots, but since the case is years old, the information does no good in reducing his sentence. But D’Angelo offers him another way out – if he will give them help get close to and take down rising hoodlum Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), he will be released from his previous conviction. Paroled for his undercover work, Nick leaves prison and begins getting close to Udo. At the same time, he develops a relationship with Coleen and does his best to create the ideal family life with his new lady and his children. Things get dicey for everyone involved when Udo begins to learn what is going on, placing everyone close to Nick at extreme peril.

As strongly as I feel about my intro to this piece, there is no argument that Widmark is a tour-de-force in every scene he appears in. But the main criticism that I have read concerning the character of Tommy Udo – and really of the movie in general – is that Udo feels underdeveloped. I think this is missing the point of the film. Although Udo may feel like the center of attention, he actually isn’t. The real focus of the story is on Nick Bianco, a man desperately trying to go straight who never really has a chance to do so. While this is an incredibly familiar storyline, what makes it unique in this case is the reason why Nick doesn’t have a chance. It isn’t just the underworld that “pulls him back in,” as Michael Corleone would say decades later. It’s also the district attorney, his own lawyer, and other supposedly respectable personalities. Nick is being bombarded from every possible angle, leaving him and his family caught in the middle of powerful forces, both legal and illegal. So with this in mind, the lack of development of Tommy Udo as a fully fleshed-out person is unimportant to me. What matters is the dynamism of Widmark portraying one of the most sadistic and evil characters in Hollywood history. Those that have seen the film will undoubtedly be able to hear the childish giggle that he unleashes after committing horrendous acts of violence. Even more so than other cinema psychopaths, such as classic characters like Cody Jarrett, Udo seems to genuinely enjoy the violence and bloodshed. It is shocking even now to watch him push a helpless wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stars. Imagine what it must have been like to see this in 1947.

Hathaway’s work is also noteworthy, as it alternates between documentary style shooting and gritty, noirish set pieces. Scenes showing Nick confined in prison feel real because, to a certain extent, they are. Hathaway took cast and crew to the actual Sing Sing Prison to film. Popular legend holds that the actors were processed through the institution as actual prisoners would be, adding a further sense of realism to everything filmed there. Likewise, shooting on the streets of New York is also gorgeous, particularly in the filming of the tense Manhattan jewel heist that opens the film.

There are certainly some minor details that I would have preferred to change – once again, there is narration that is completely unnecessary, and I could understand someone thinking there might be a bit too much moralizing in the story. Still, taken as a whole, I still think it’s a wonderful noir. It has a solid reputation, but with the exception of Widmark’s turn as Udo, I think it is actually a bit underrated as a whole.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

#33: Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944)

Released: December 18, 1944

Director: Edward Dmytryk; Screenplay: John Paxton based on the novel “Farwell My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler; Cinematography: Harry J. Wild; Music: Roy Webb; Producer: Adrian Scott; Studio: RKO

Cast: Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Otto Kruger (Jules Amthor), Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy), Miles Mander (Mr. Grayle), Douglas Walton (Lindsay Marriott), Don Douglas (Police Lt. Randall), Ralf Harolde (Dr. Sonderborg), Esther Howard (Jessie Florian), Paul Phillips ( Detective Nulty)

- “I don't know which side anybody's on. I don't even know who's playing today…”

Humphrey Bogart may always be identified as the Hollywood personification of Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, but Dick Powell can make a strong case for turning in an equally exciting performance. Murder, My Sweet may not be as great a movie as the Bogart-led The Big Sleep, but it’s much closer than the general consensus seems to recognize. Powell is a major reason why. His take on Marlowe – which was actually made the same year as The Big Sleep, even though that film was not released until two years later – is distinctive from that of Bogart. With Powell, Marlowe is even wittier, even more cynical in his observations (yes, that is possible). Dick Powell sells it all perfectly, delivering the sharp one-liners with a deadpan expression that is both laugh-out-loud funny and knowingly tough.

In this chapter in the cases of Philip Marlowe, the PI is hired by a recently paroled ex-con named Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his former girlfriend Velma. Marlowe comes up empty despite some interesting leads, particularly after he is sidetracked after being hired by the regal Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton). Marriott offers Marlowe $100 to accompany him on a late-night mission to buy back some stolen jewelry. Instead of the transaction going smoothly, Marlowe is knocked unconscious and Marriott is murdered. Realizing that somebody is likely trying to pin a murder on him, Marlowe makes his way to the home of the jewels' owner, Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), to tell her what happened. Grayle, wanting to recover the necklace before her much older and wealthy husband learns it is missing, decides to hire Marlowe herself. The deeper that Marlowe digs into the case, the more that he uncovers and realizes that the various cases that he is working are tied together. He eventually begins working not just to recover stolen jewelry, but to keep himself from either being killed or framed for a murder.

Not having read Farewell My Lovely, I can’t specifically comment on which parts of the screenplay are pure Chandler and which should be credited to screenwriter John Paxton. My guess is that the caustic humor found throughout the movie can in some way be traced back to Chandler, as everything I’ve read from him oozes such cynicism. Still, Paxton has to be credited for taking the source material and its inherently convoluted plot, and creating an impressive script. Even if the great Marlowe zingers come entirely from the pen of Raymond Chandler, then I’ll at least credit Paxton with selecting the choicest of them to include in the screenplay. The traditional flashback structure also flows very well here, with the story being told by Marlowe in a police interrogation room, immediately making clear that Marlowe finds himself in a hell of a predicament.

The direction by Edward Dmytryk is superlative. I still think that the first few minutes of this film are archetypal noir. An opening in a police station, with Marlowe’s face in bandages and anxious police officers imploring the private eye to tell them the whole story. Reluctantly, Marlowe agrees and as he begins telling the tale, the camera swings toward the streetlights shining in through an open window. As Marlowe continues talking, the camera pulls back to show the P.I. peering down through a window, staring at the same streetlights, and kicking off the flashback story. Slowly, with flashing lights glaring off the window, the shadow of a large man (Moose Malloy) is seen standing behind Marlowe in his darkened office. There are other memorable scenes – the drug induced hallucination is well remembered – but it’s this early sequence that sticks with me most. It’s also interesting to note the connections of this movie and the future trouble that Dmytryk would have with the House Un-American Activities Committee. As is well-known, Dmytryk was called before HUAC twice. The first time, he refused to cooperate with the committee and was jailed for contempt. In 1951, he was called back to the committee and decided to name names, answering questions concerning his own membership in the Communist party and various Hollywood figures that he claimed were trying to influence him to including communist propaganda in his films. One of the names that he listed was Adrian Scott, the producer of Murder, My Sweet. The result of Dmytryk’s testimony was disastrous for Scott, as he was blacklisted and unable to find work in Hollywood.

But I’m not here to judge Dmytryk’s legal maneuvering, I just want to celebrate this great film that he created. It is a cornerstone of any noir collection and Dick Powell turns in the best performance that I’ve ever seen from him.

Monday, March 22, 2010

#34: Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)

Released: August 22, 1947

Robert Rossen; Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky; Cinematography: James Wong Howe; Music: Hugo Friedhofer; Producer: Bob Roberts; Studio: United Artists

Cast: John Garfield (Charley Davis), Lilli Palmer (Peg Born), Hazel Brooks (Alice), Anne Revere (Anna Davis), William Conrad (Quinn), Joseph Pevney (Shorty Polaski), Lloyd Gough (Roberts), Canada Lee (Ben Chaplin), Art Smith (David Davis)

Anyone who follows the blog knows of my passion for boxing. It’s my favorite sport. Oftentimes, my weekend schedule centers around making sure that I am able to see any boxing available. I have DVDs and old VHS tapes of fights. I’ve been ringside for a heavyweight title fight, welterweight title fight, seen in person some of the best fighters of the generation. In the context of movies and this blog, what intrigues me is how the sport offers such a great opportunity for character study – when done well. There is something incredibly interesting to try and understand what makes someone tick when they give and receive punches for a living. But I can be very sensitive when judging a boxing film and those that I judge subpar I can barely stomach. Even some that have been critically lauded (such as Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which does have some marvelous performances), I have serious problems with. I tend to be overly critical when it comes to movies dealing with a topic that I feel so passionately about.

And so, with that in mind, this will be a somewhat bold declaration: Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul is among the best two or three best boxing films ever made. The only two that I’m aware of that even challenge it are Robert Wise’s The Set-Up and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. It’s that good.

For the most part, it is a well-worn story that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a boxing film. It follows the rise and fall of Charley Davis (John Garfield), a Jewish kid from the slums who rises all the way to world champion. Growing up, Charley is discouraged from boxing by his mother, but when he sees her struggling to make ends meet after the death of his father, Charley realizes that he can provide for everyone if he continues fighting. Forming a partnership with longtime pal and trainer Shorty (Joseph Pevney) and boxing manager Quinn (William Conrad), he begins advancing through the professional ranks. But the higher Charley climbs, the more that he loses perspective. Acquiring incredible wealth and fame, Charley begins to grow distant from Shorty, longtime girlfriend Peg (Lilli Palmer) and even his dear mother Anna (Anne Revere). When racketeer and fight fixer Roberts (Lloyd Gough) begins to get continually closer to Charley, offering him even more wealth and titles, Charley’s past relationships begin to be cast aside for material gains.

As is the case for most great sports films, the sport is less important than the characters and life issues explored. The fact that Body and Soul is a boxing movie is almost secondary. The real point of the terrific script for Abraham Polonsky is to explore the corrupting nature of money and how constant material temptation can (or maybe always will?) eventually wear a man down. As I discussed in my entry for Polonsky’s Force of Evil, at times I have trouble with some of the writer's “pound it into your head” approach to social critique, but it never feels that abrasive in Body and Soul. No doubt, there are some clichéd touches, such as the moralizing mother, but I understand how they are eventually necessary to the overall product. What works for me with this script is that perhaps he is criticizing capitalist society just as aggressively as he would later do in Force of Evil, but the story being told is so classic in nature that it need not be viewed only at that level. It’s the timeless rags to riches story of a man starting from nothing, rising to previously unimaginable wealth and success, and then struggling to maintain his identity in the face of all the new temptations and luxuries. Stories like this go back to ancient mythology. Does it apply to the capitalist society that Polonsky intended to condemn? Sure, but it applies to lot of other situations too.

John Garfield is spectacular as Charley Davis, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone reading this, especially considering that I’m the judging the performance – Garfield might be my favorite actor of the era. Davis is probably even more blatantly likable than other Garfield characters, which makes it so maddening to see him fall victim to the vices presented to him by shady characters like Roberts. Each supporting role is very good as well, but I always look toward Joseph Pevney’s Shorty as one that I enjoy most. The on-screen connection established between Garfield and Peveny is palpable, which makes it all the more affecting when things fall apart. And what more can be said about the direction of Robert Rossen than has not already been acknowledged by those in the industry? The fight scenes here were quite clearly an influence on Scorsese’s work in Raging Bull. The final fight, in which Charley is ordered to take a dive, is far ahead of its time. Cinematographer James Wong Howe doesn’t get overly expressionistic with his lighting and camera work but he shines nonetheless, and not just in the fight scenes. The opening overhead shot that scans the darkened environs of Charley’s training camp is a beautiful thing.

It is certainly far from a flattering portrait of the fight game, but there’s no denying the authenticity of such events. The 40s and 50s were a time when things didn’t happen in boxing unless men like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo – the basis for a character like Roberts – said so. Polonsky captures this dirty little secret with incredible results.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Slight Break in the Action

Hopefully this won't disrupt traffic to the post below for #35 in the countdown, Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends,
so keep the comments coming there. But...

Due to the fact that I’m going to be out of town for a few days, I am going to take a few days off from the countdown so that I can be back and settled before things continue. I knew for some time that I would be gone Thursday through Sunday and originally intended to set up each day’s entry to auto-post so that the daily pace could be continued. But the more that I thought about it, the more that I realized that most of the fun for me comes from being able to see the comments that are being made and to converse with everyone that is reading. Since I will be gone and not have as much computer access as usual, this would be almost impossible – which defeats the entire purpose as far as I’m concerned.

So Thursday-Sunday will be off days, with the daily schedule being resumed on Monday March 22. Hopefully everyone is cool with this – at the very least it will give everyone some time to catch up on any new noirs that I have highlighted or to try and guess how the rest of the rankings will unfold! Again, I hesitated to do this, but I want to be around when the reviews are up and being discussed, and that just won’t be possible while I’m gone. I think this will work best.

#35: Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950)

Released: June 26, 1950

Otto Preminger; Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Robert E. Kent, Frank P. Rosenberg, Victor Trivas based on the novel “Night Cry” by William L. Stuart; Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle; Music: Cyril J. Mockridge; Producer: Otto Preminger; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Dana Andrews (Detective Sgt. Mark Dixon), Gene Tierney (Morgan Taylor-Paine), Gary Merrill (Tommy Scalise), Bert Freed (Detective Sgt. Paul Klein), Tom Tully (Jiggs Taylor), Karl Malden (Detective Lt. Thomas), Ruth Donnelly (Martha), Craig Stevens (Ken Paine), Neville Brand (Steve), Oleg Cassini (Oleg), Kathleen Hughes (Secretary), Lou Nova (Ernie), Harry von Zell (Ted Morrison)

- "Innocent people can get into terrible jams too..."

Many of the actors and principal figures involved in production may be the same, but this 1950 release from director Otto Preminger is entirely differently from the critically-acclaimed Laura. Where Laura is sophisticated and witty, spinning a yarn centering on a high society whodunit,Where the Sidewalk Ends goes back to where noir thrives – the streets. In this film, Preminger walks the audience through a dark, gritty view of the underworld and gives an intimate view of how one many wrestles with demons that he has carried with him his entire life. Laura may be charming, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is rough. And both are great films. Laura quickly achieved the status that it deserves and is rightly held up as one of the preeminent films of the 1940s. Where the Sidewalk Ends, on the other hand, seems to get overlooked by other Preminger films. Perhaps people compare it to Laura, which is understandable considering the lead pairing, and see it as inferior. Personally, I go back and forth on which of the two that I prefer. Laura is undoubtedly the greater of the two, but in terms of a noir countdown like this, I have been tempted to place this one above it. In the end, since Laura has yet to appear in the countdown, I obviously chose the more conventional position. But I still think that Where the Sidewalk Ends is every bit as entertaining and well-made as its more popular counterpart.

Dana Andrews stars as brooding NYPD Detective Sgt. Mark Dixon. Very early in the film it is established that Dixon has a history of brutality, working over suspects in order to get confessions. When he is sent to investigate a recent murder and robbery at a late-night dice game run by mob boss Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill), he once again takes things too far. Rather than just roughing up smalltime hood Ken Paine (Craig Stevens), Dixon inadvertently kills the man in his apartment. In order to cover it up, Dixon fixes the evidence to look like a gangland rubout engineered by his longtime nemesis Scalise. It looks like an easy frame-up, as Scalise was involved in the original killing, but things are complicated when Dixon gets to know his own victim’s ex-wife, Morgan (Gene Tierney). Morgan and Ken Paine had been separated after a rocky relationship and as police continue their investigation, many – led by Detective Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) – in the department begin to suspect Morgan’s father Jiggs (Tom Tully) as Ken’s killer. Dixon is then forced to begin working not only to keep suspicion away from himself, but to keep Morgan’s father from taking the fall. All the while, he and the Scalise gang remained locked in a cat-and-mouse game that will likely have violent consequences.

If I remembered where I read it I would give proper credit, but somewhere among the various film and noir books and resources I’ve perused over the years, I remember someone saying that while Laura is all about Gene Tierney, Where the Sidewalk Ends is all about Dana Andrews. I don’t completely agree with this assessment – I think that the character study of Andrews’ McPherson is far too interesting to completely disregard – but I get the general sentiment that is being proposed with such a declaration. It is true that the shadow of Tierney’s Laura Hunt hangs over everything that takes place in that film. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, though, it really is all about Dixon and the demons that he has battled his entire career as an officer. This is a man trying to live down the notorious past of his father, resulting in a detective who will go to any length in order to stamp out what he perceives to be crime or corruption. Maybe it is an often-used parallel to juxtapose the criminal methods that Dixon uses a detective with the equally brutal methods of the hoods he hunts, but it is still incredibly effective. With the exception of Morgan and her father Jiggs, nobody in the film is particularly likable, meaning that you’re scrambling to decide how you think the story should unfold – does Dixon pull off the frame? Does he go down for the murder? In the corrupt world in which he operates, does it even matter in the end?

I don't think this one necessarily qualifies as underrated, but I do think that it pushes very close to being my favorite work from Otto Preminger.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

#36: White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

Released: September 2, 1949 (U.S.)

Director: Raoul Walsh; Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, based on story by Virginia Kellogg; Cinematography: Sidney Hickox; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Louis F. Edelman; Music: Max Steiner

Cast: James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett), Edmond O’Brien (Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon), Steve Cochran (Big Ed Somers), John Archer (Philip Evans)

- "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… and I stand by what I wrote about White Heat nearly 10 months ago (has it been that long?). In these early days of Goodfella’s, one of the first projects that I did was a series of posts on four of James Cagney’s most famous gangster films – The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces and White Heat. Even after the completion of the Year’s Best Countdown, I still look back fondly on this Cagney series and think some of the best stuff that I’ve done on the blog happened there. So, instead of just posting a condensed version of a review I’ve already written, I think it’s worth posting it again, edited only to keep out things that are unnecessary in terms of the countdown. In this section, I’ll just add some general thoughts that tie White Heat into the noir countdown.

And I will also acknowledge at least one change of opinion from that original review. For whatever reason – possibly from trying not to fawn over every film yet reviewed on my still young blog – I rated White Heat at only 8/10 at that time. That was just too low. I’ve watched it since then, and while I still have a few Cagney films I prefer, if I were to put some sort of rating on it, it would have to be at least 9/10. It’s as good as any thriller or action film of the era and the bravura performance of Cagney as the infamous Cody Jarrett needs no introduction to any movie fan. It’s a minor issue I know, as ratings ultimately mean nothing, but I thought I should at least point it out.

This is another example that highlights the overlap between noir and gangster films. White Heat falls into either category – and ranks highly regardless of designation. The more Raoul Walsh that I watch, the more that I appreciate his genius. White Heat does not boast the usual amount of expressionistic light and interesting camera angles that are sprinkled throughout most noirs, but it still highlights the creativity of a great director. Watch the way that he films the opening train robbery. Or, most impressive, the high shots he uses in the prison dining hall to film Cody’s reaction to learning of his mother’s death. These are magnificent.

But, as I said, I don’t want to just repeat everything that I said earlier. This isn’t meant as a copout, but I think it works to simply re-post the review. It still applies for this countdown, even if it is much longer than the other entries.


In White Heat, James Cagney is reunited with director Raoul Walsh, a duo with a proven track record. But this is a different film from their previous effort, The Roaring Twenties, and not just because of the sadistic character played by Cagney. Most critics and observers refer to White Heat as the final chapter of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films. I contend (as I did in my earlier review of The Roaring Twenties), that this is not entirely accurate and that White Heat has actually moved into a different area of the crime drama. The Roaring Twenties contains all of the archetypal elements of the “classic” gangster film – big-city racketeers, syndicates, gang wars. White Heat, in contrast, has none of these. Cody Jarrett and his partners operate as a band of outlaws, actually more similar to the gangs of Jesse James and other western renegades than to Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

This is not at all a criticism. I just think it’s necessary to recognize that this film, released in 1949, bears a closer resemblance to film noir than to previous gangster efforts. Obviously, these two genres are not mutually exclusive, and ultimately it’s an argument of semantics. But it's an interesting issue to ponder, especially because White Heat’s place in the gangster cycle is unquestioned and oftentimes overshadows the great effort that was The Roaring Twenties. Looking at White Heat from a slightly different vantage point allows both films to shine for their own unique reasons.

The fact that Raoul Walsh is directing means that the action sequences of the film are top quality. The first scenes of the film are spectacular. It opens with sweeping shots of rural California, with plumes of smoke shooting into the air from a locomotive as it weaves its way through the mountains. Simultaneously, Cody and his men are moving into position to hijack the train. As the inside men on board overtake workers, Cody and henchman position themselves on the tracks. Once the engineer unwittingly begins to bring the train to a stop precisely where the gang wants them, the stunning scene of Cody Jarrett leaping from an overpass onto the moving train commences the robbery. This is not the most celebrated scene in the film (I’ll let you guess which one that would be), but it is arguably the most visually appealing. The team makes off with $300,000 of federal money, but it is not a perfect job. Gang member Zuckie (Ford Rainey) is severely burned by steam from the engine, and his health steadily declines as the gang holes up in the California mountains to avoid law enforcement.

While hiding in the mountains, the principal characters are introduced and the personalities that will contribute to the conflict throughout the film are on full display. We meet Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), a beautiful woman who loathes the lack of luxuries involved with life on the run. The various gang members are introduced, most notably Big Ed (Steve Cochran), a powerfully built underling who seems to have aspirations for control of the gang. Cody clearly has suspicions of this ambition, as well as the notion that Big Ed is trying to cozy up to Verna. Whenever the two come into close contact with each other – even for something innocuous as Verna pouring Big Ed a cup of coffee – Cody erupts in anger. Finally, and most importantly, is Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), the singular influence on the attitudes and actions of Cody. The elderly Ma distrusts everyone in the cabin other than her son, Verna included, and never hesitates to counsel caution and violence to keep Cody safe. Just witness her recommendation to Cody that they should not leave the injured Zuckie in the cabin to be found by police after the rest of the gang moves on. Her solution? Get rid of him. After all, he might talk.

It is in the cabin that another layer is added to the Cody Jarrett character, as he experiences a crippling headache that has him falling to the floor and grimacing in pain. Ma ushers him into a side bedroom so that the rest of the gang does not see him in such a helpless state. Cody is calmed by his mother and collects himself by sitting on his mother’s lap. This scene highlights the intriguing bond between mother and son, introducing something of an Oedipus dynamic to the relationship. Later in the film, when federal agents are discussing Cody, one remarks that as a child Cody would fake headaches in order to get his mother’s attention away from the rest of the family. But as he grew older, the imagined headaches became very real and reached the debilitating level that is witnessed in the cabin. Treasury Agent Philip Evans (John Archer) declares that “Any minute he’s apt to crack open at the seams.”

The opening train robbery essentially sets the stage for everything else that happens. After the gang leaves the mountains, they split up and continue to evade law enforcement. When the authorities finally catch up to Cody, he admits to pulling off a payroll robbery in a completely different state. By doing this, he hopes to receive less prison time than he would for the train robbery and the murder of one of the railroad men in the process. The Treasury agents on the train robbery case see through the ruse, but allow Cody to believe that he has outwitted them. Instead, the federal agents ensure that Cody’s story is accepted and that he is sent to prison in Illinois. Their plan is to install an undercover agent, Hank Fallon masquerading as inmate Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), as Cody’s cellmate in Springfield and attempt to uncover where the $300,000 from the train robbery is stashed.

Jarrett befriends Pardo and the two hatch an escape plan, which Fallon reports to the authorities. However, events in the outside world complicate things. Jarrett had earlier learned from Ma that Verna and Big Ed had run off together. Over Cody’s objections, Ma declares that she will find the couple and personally take care of Big Ed. On the planned day of his breakout, Cody learns that his Ma is dead, and he goes ballistic. Despite being held in a straightjacket after the eruption, Cody still manages to proceed with an escape. But it does not follow the plan that Fallon had outlined to federal agents, and thus the group of inmates are successful. Once out of jail, Cody immediately sets out to find Verna and Big Ed. When he finally does, he learns that Big Ed is the murderer of his beloved Ma. Verna manages to convince him that she had nothing to do with the murder, but Big Ed is not so fortunate. After dispatching Big Ed and seizing back control of his gang – which now includes an undercover agent – Cody proceeds to plan a daring payroll robbery. The plan he constructs is his version of the legend of the Trojan Horse. The thieves will hide in an oil tanker and will be let into the oil refinery without any problems.

The robbery, predictably, does not go as planned. When Cody and his men enter the refinery, they are quickly surrounded by law enforcement. True to his reputation, Cody refuses to surrender and continues fighting as he sees his partners shot down. Retreating to the top of a large tank of gas, Cody decides to make a stand. This final scene is without question the most celebrated in the entire film. It is as good (and explosive) as advertised, further reinforcing Walsh’s skill in creating tense action sequences. The entire oil refinery robbery is well-structured. Walsh does a great job of creating tension, by keeping the audience guessing as to how Vic Pardo is going to manage to alert authorities and keep himself from being discovered as a mole. It is a hard-charging final fifteen minutes to close the film, and the conclusion ranks among the most legendary in Hollywood history. As great as the conclusions to the other three films in this Cagney series are (with Angles With Dirty Faces being my personal favorite), this is the finish that is most likely to pop up in “greatest movie endings” lists.

While Rocky Sullivan is my personal favorite Cagney role, Cody Jarrett may very well be his most memorable. It is a character that sticks with you long after the film has ended. There were certainly evil characters before, but none seem to revel in the sadism as Cody does. It serves to create a very interesting perspective for the viewer. Who is the protagonist in the film? Who is the audience to root for in the contest between the criminals and the federal agents? Other Cagney films present an obvious answer, as even though the lead characters were admitted criminals and gangsters, they were shown to have at least some admirable qualities. This is not the case in White Heat. Outside of love for his mother, Cody possesses none of these. It is quite a feat that Walsh and Cagney are able to make the film work without a true hero for the audience to identify with. Cagney’s performance is so thrilling, that even if you aren’t rooting for Cody to succeed, you’re at the very least fascinated to see how far that he will make it.

Margaret Wycherly turns in an equally chilling performance. She makes Ma Jarrett nearly as vicious as Cody. The relationship between mother and son truly is bizarre. Sometimes it feels a bit over the top, such as the explaining of how the headaches were developed in childhood, but it’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever seen in crime films of the era.