Sudden Fear

April 30, 2009 at 8:57 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , )


 

Myra Hudson, played by Joan Crawford, is a successful playwright who also happens to have inherited a vast family fortune. Sudden Fear opens with her terminating Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) as the leading man in her latest play. He is upset initially, but seems well-adjusted to the fact when he later meets her on a train to San Francisco. 

There is perhaps no more sudden transformation of a character from charming to sinister as Lester Blaine in Sudden Fear. It is a noir film so we all know that something is going to happen, but there are no early clues to tell you that the charm of Lester is going to turn into evil. Palance reciting some lines of Myra Hudson’s writing is a little much for the stomach to handle, but all in all his performance is pretty good and charming with no hint of malice or deception sneaking into his character in the early going. No smiles that go away when Crawford turns away, no slip ups at all to tip off the viewer. After a while, you really begin to believe that Blaine wants nothing to do with Hudson’s money. That is suddenly when things change. 

In one subtle scene, you realize just how well thought out Blaine’s plot is when he doesn’t show for a party she is giving in his honor. He knows she will come after him, so he waits in his room with his bags packed until he hears her drive up. Quickly grabbing his bags and throwing on his coat and hat to make it look as if he is leaving for good, he meets her on the steps. He then gives her a few probably well-rehearsed lines. “I have no place in your life Myra. No proper place…You have so much. I have nothing.” 

At this point you are still not sure that Lester is all bad until the entrance of one of the greatest film noir faces ever, Gloria Grahame as Irene Neves. This is where you get that moment that only happens in the movies when Grahame and Palance are introduced and you can tell from his reaction that there is a past. This is when the movie finally kicks into gear. It is a pretty slow go up to this point. 

Blaine doesn’t know that Neves has made her way to San Francisco and is now attached to the arm of Myra Hudson’s lawyer. The viewer quickly realizes there is a steamy past between Lester and Irene. Irene and Lester eventually concoct a plan to kill Myra so they can get a hold of her vast fortune before she gives it all away to charity. 

Gloria Grahame is a sexy as she has ever been, with the exception of In a Lonely Place, and Joan Crawford can still pull off any role at this point and looks good doing it. Palance is good but overmatched by Grahame and Crawford. Bruce Bennett is also in this movie, playing one of Myra’s lawyers and, as always, is solid in his performance. 

One little nugget of note: most everyone is aware of Joan Crawford’s erratic personality and her numerous clashes on the sets of her movies. There was a supposed physical altercation between Gloria Grahame and Crawford on the set, as they did not get along, and Jack Palance is reported to have said that the guys on the set watched it go on for a little while out of amusement and curiosity before breaking it up. 

All in all, Sudden Fear is a pretty good film noir and definitely worth the watch. It certainly has its moments. Myra in the closet as Lester walks around Irene’s apartment is as tense a moment as you will see in any film. The little dog and the ringing phone make you almost jump out of your skin. Director David Miller has a mostly even hand throughout the film, but his best moments are at the end, in Irene’s apartment and the chase sequence through the streets of San Francisco. 

In true noir fashion, the line between good and evil are blurred and there is plenty of sympathy for characters that are planning murder.  

Spoiler

 It was well foreshadowed, possibly too well, in the beginning that the recording equipment in Myra’s study would be the downfall of someone. However, it is still an interesting little plot device and works pretty well. This allows for one of the more unique plot twists in all of film noir, as it precipitates one of the few, if only, moments in which the rich spouse fights back with a sinister plot of their own. At first you think Crawford’s character is simply going to fold up the tent and divorce Blaine, but she has something else in mind entirely. Blaine should have known better than to mess with Crawford. While she didn’t invent crazy, she certainly came up with her own unique brand.

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Jeopardy

April 24, 2009 at 7:43 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , )


 

Jeopardy is a film noir (supposedly) from 1953 that is directed by John Sturges. It doesn’t come without star power with Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Meeker and Barry Sullivan, but it does lack just about everything else. It is considered a film noir, but I have yet to see why that is.

 

The writing is sub par to be generous and while the storyline in many good noirs is questionable, Jeopardy’s catalyst is about the worst. On a family vacation to an abandoned beach front, Barry Sullivan (the father) falls through a dilapidated pier and his leg is caught under a large piece of timber that originally held up that section of the pier. The wife, Barbara Stanwyck, and the young son (Lee Aaker) try to get him out before the tide comes in and drowns him.

 

The frustrating thing is that the piece of timber is not very large, though it breaks their car jack, and the sand underneath is soft. The film is supposed to convince you that they cannot shovel out the soft sand because there are a couple of rocks around, but it defies anyone’s common sense and their attempts to get him out from under the log are extremely minimal before it is decided that Stanwyck should make a 2 hour journey back to the only house they saw on the way in.

 

The story does pick up when Ralph Meeker enters, an escaped convict that doesn’t care about Stanwyck’s family and takes her as a hostage. The movie struggles mightily until he enters. Meeker does get the best lines of the film and is the only actor that seems to care about his character.

 

The big hook of the film is the moral quandary Stanwyck finds herself in as she tries to decide if it is worth it to give herself to Meeker in order to save her husband from certain death. Meeker wants to have his way with her and this Stanwyck’s only bargaining chip.

 

I would never tell anyone not to watch a film, but don’t expect much from this one. The beginning is amateurish at best and it appears as if the filmmakers didn’t even try to convince the audience that Sullivan was truly stuck under the large timber. Stanwyck is a great actress, but this may be the worst film I have seen of hers to date and it really hurts to watch her talent wasted.

 

Spoiler Alert

 

One glaring problem with this story is that the hook is not really used. Stanwyck is supposed to give herself to Meeker in order to convince him to help her husband. Whether or not sex actually happens is open to interpretation (they have a couple of violent kisses), but it was not necessary as what convinces him to help is that Meeker can have her husbands clothes, identification and car.

 

It may have helped this film if Stanwyck did run off with Meeker and left Sullivan to drown in front of his son. Instead, the ending was lackadaisical and predictable with the exception that you know Meeker probably gets away at least for a while longer. If Stanwyck would have been a real femme fatale, this would have at least given the film some tones of noir. Otherwise it was simply a poorly written and put together film that has little value other than to give further evidence the Ralph Meeker was an underrated actor. 

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Blast of Silence

April 24, 2009 at 7:21 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , )


“Remembering, out of the black silence you were born in pain.” The opening line of Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence, along with the blackness of the train tunnel sets the tone for this late film noir. The movie is film noir to its core, but is not very well known. It was made in 1961 on a shoe-string budget, but that seems to be what gives it its real punch.

 

By not having the monetary backing of a real studio, Baron had to shoot the film on real location shots, without permits, and often times sneaking around to get the shots he wanted. It is these real locations, along with the cinematography of Merrill Brody that make this film an excellent watch simply for its “look.”

 

There are many other reasons to check out this somewhat hard to find classic. Director and writer Allen Baron does a good job playing the lead role of the mostly silent hit man Frankie Bono. The raspy voice of character actor Lionel Stander, one of the most recognizable voices in the history of film, narrates in a style that may at times seem too much, but the more you view the movie, the more it seems appropriate.

 

Then there is the tubby gun broker Ralphy played by Larry Tucker. Tucker, mostly a writer and producer, is also known for his brief portrayal in Advise and Consent as a sort of gay pimp. Tucker has the ability to steal a movie with only a few scenes and he certainly makes his presence known in Blast of Silence.

 

The Mise en Scene in Ralphy’s apartment; clothes and bottles everywhere, caged rates, along with Ralphy’s labored, heavy breathing, picking up raw sardines and licking his finger, the sweat on his face, you can smell the odor that must be in that room.

 

While this is a film that’s best quality is it looks, with great shadows, location shots, and camera work, it is essentially a character study of a man. Franky Bono is on an assignment: he must knock off a gangster in another city. On the surface it appears that Bono is simply just another heartless, emotionless hit man, he is anything but that.

 

He has to find a way to hate the mark before he can do the hit. Bono resorts to the most superficial hatreds such as he has “lips like a woman; the kind of face you hate.” Or “he thinks he’s a gentleman because his shoes are shined.” The hit men we have come to know in many films do there job with an absence of emotion, but Bono cannot. He must have a reason to hate the mark and that is what makes him vulnerable.

 

There are some incredible shots in this film. The orphanage kids filing out of their playground in the shape of a Swastika, walking under the Brooklyn Bridge and the shot of Bono walking down the hill toward the camera with the skyline behind him.

 

There are many reasons to watch Blast of Silence. It is a little different from the noirs of the 40’s and 50’s. It has a sort of beatnik feel to it, but the noir elements are mainly intact, the cinematography is excellent and you probably will not forget the climactic scene.

 

Spoiler Alert

 

Bono is certainly a reluctant hit man or bad guy. He tries to remove himself from the world and normal people in order to more easily justify his profession. The closer he gets to the real world, the lesser he can justify killing for money, which is his eventual downfall. The peanut pushing contest is ridiculous, but shows that he does have his silly side just like the rest of the world. But he quickly goes back to hating Christmas. Of course, against his “better” judgment, he does allow himself to get closer with the real world by taking up the offer of Lorrie for dinner.

 

In the end, with the wind howling and the snow falling, Bono is taken down by those who hired him in the first place because his sensibilities will not let him do the job. He winds up face down in an isolated muddy creek surrounded by abandoned shacks and swamp land.

 

Though you sympathize with Bono, you can only feel so sorry for him because of his murderous past. You have to question why he goes to the abandoned swamp to meet with these guys as you knew they were going to try and take him out, but like most film noirs, he really had no control. It was his fate.  

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Brute Force

April 20, 2009 at 4:38 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , )


 

Brute Force is one of the best and most influential prison movies ever made and certainly stands atop the prison noir sub-genre. It is noir to the core with its fatalism, vulnerable heroes, grimness and definitive leftist principles. It was considered at the time as a propaganda movie and there is much to that as the convicts are shown sympathetically and most of the authority figures are either evil, incompetent or ambitious at the cost of others.

 

There are some noir heavyweights involved with Brute Force such as Mark Hellinger, Jules Dassin and Burt Lancaster. It is a great ensemble cast that includes Lancaster as the start but many significant supporting roles, most notably Hume Cronyn as the unforgettably wicked Captain Munsey. Sam Levene, Art Smith, Charles Bickford, Yvonne De Carlo, John Hoyt and Ella Raines have lesser roles.

 

There are some really beautiful shots in this film, courtesy of Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels was also the cinematographer for Dassin on Naked City. The hearse pulling through the gate in the beginning cutting the rain and heading over the bridge is as striking a shot as you will find in any film noir. The tone is set from this beginning with the rain soaking the yard and the large seemingly unmovable door holding everyone in except the man who has just died. The fatalism of the film is set right then as the only way out is death and Burt Lancaster seems to feel this as he stands in the rain and watches the large gate open and the dead man pass on to the other side.

 

For its time it is certainly a violent film. It amazingly lays dormant for long stretches and then explodes at you. Hellinger and Dassin were able to get around this violence because of Hellinger’s connections to the censorship board.

 

There may be no other film that contains as many black listed players or those whose careers where hurt by their political beliefs. Jules Dassin, Jeffrey Corey, Art Smith, Roman Bohnen, Charles Bickford and Howard Chamberland where among those who were though to be communists or have severe leftist leanings which damaged their careers to various degrees. The message sent by Brute Force was certainly no help in their fight against the HUAC and the blacklist.  

 

This is one of the many noirs directed by Jules Dassin and it certainly is among his best. Dassin’s collaboration with producer Mark Hellinger and writer Richard Brooks was indeed contentious but productive. An extensive review of this film could go on forever about the complex staging of nearly every scene which greatly adds to the look and feel of the film. It is truly Dassin during the height of his powers. This is certainly a film that noir lovers should see. Even if you object to the sympathizing of the prisoners and the propagandizing that comes through the drunken doctor on several occasions, the film is beautiful, the acting is top-notch for its time and style and each scene is incredibly layered.   

 

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What is Film Noir

April 6, 2009 at 9:33 PM (What is Film Noir) ()


There are as many definitions of film noir as there are fans. Most any avid fan of these seedy, atmospheric films have a different notion as to what makes them great, what makes them come together as a group. However, there are some common threads and a certain essence that helps to make a movie a film noir.

The first thing you should know about film noir is that none of the filmmakers during its heyday (1940’s, 1950’s) knew that they where making films in the film noir genre. They were simply making, at least most of them, what were known at the time as B movies. The budgets were small and the filming time was short. One of the classic components of film noir, the darkness and shadow, is a result of the lack of a big budget. The darkness, at least in one sense, was used to cover up what were lackluster sets.

Being a B film meant the filmmakers were not under that same executive scrutiny as an A film. This was the ultimate saving grace for film noir, as it allowed the writers, directors and actors to experiment and to tackle topics that an A film simply could not. They were able to push the envelope and thus film noir’s are much “edgier” than other films of the day.

Many associated film noir with private detectives and murder cases, and while these where prevalent, there were plenty of other story lines within what can be considered film noir. Film noir was influenced greatly by WWII, Freud’s psychology, German expressionism, and existentialism. The anti-hero was the king of film noir and separated these films from the other films of the time. Man and woman’s place in the universe and the troubled hero formed the backbone of these films. The good guy did not always win; the good guy did not always live. The good guy was not always a good guy.

To me film noir is Robert Mitchum, Bogart, Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Claire Trevor and Gloria Graham. It is Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, and Orson Welles. It takes me back to a part of history long before I was thought of, a foreign world that seems so real and so alien at the same time. It is old cars, the big city, small towns outside the big city, dames pulling out a pistol and not afraid to use it. It is also those who filled the smaller, but no less important roles, like Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr., Esther Howard and Thelma Ritter. It is films that I can truly escape into but also learn a little from and be inspired by.

You could search for an exact definition of film noir and you will find plenty, but they will tell you nothing. To understand what film noir is you have to watch and watch and watch. You will then have your own definition and that is when you know that you understand what is film noir.

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