May 13, 2009 at 7:11 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

Boomerang is a 1947 film directed by Elia Kazan, Kazan’s 3rd film, and includes a fairly large cast of film noir favorites. Dana Andrews is the star and a film noir legend. Other noir stalwarts include Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Sam Levene, Jane Wyatt, Ed Begley and Karl Malden. 

Boomerang has a striking and violent beginning for the period, with the voice-of-god narraration setting the stage while a minister walks along the street saying hello to the townspeople. Suddenly a pistol comes into the frame just above and behind the minister’s head. A quick cut away to the townsfolk minding their own business on the street and the shot rings out. 

From then on, the chase begins for the killer of the beloved minister. The entire local rabble is brought in for questioning and the townspeople are calling for action. This is all shown in a couple of montage sequences which is well done and is good for the economy of the film. 

Finally, the police think they have their man in John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) who is a war veteran that is down on his luck. He is interrogated without a lawyer for hours on end by Police Chief Harold Robinson (Lee J. Cobb) and Lt. White (Karl Malden). The sleep depravation and other interrogation methods finally force Waldron to confess and the trial ensues. Andrews plays the State’s Attorney Henry Harvey that is trying the case of the roustabout Waldron. 

This film, if it is about only one thing, it is corruption. All the while the police are looking for the killer of the minister; the ones who have the power in the town are trying to use the killing as a means of gaining more power. Henry Harvey gets caught up in this and the pressure is also put on Robinson to get someone for the murder. 

Harvey puts on the pressure, but still retains some of his morality. He wants to seek the truth, but once the governor’s office is dangled in front of his face; his morality takes a back seat to his ambition.

 The noir elements of this film are most noticeable in the low angle shots used by Kazan, Kazan’s night scenes, and the Arthur Kennedy character Waldron. Waldron, though not the protagonist, is the one who is subjected to the roller coaster ride of fate. He is being accused of murder and has no real recourse. He is having trouble re-adjusting to life coming back from the war and is extremely conflicted and volatile, especially as he becomes more a pawn in the powerbroker’s local political maneuverings.   

The look of this film is tempered a bit from noirs such as Out of the Past and The Big Combo, but mainly because Kazan is not generally considered a film noir director. Along with Boomerang, Kazan’s only other noir direction is for Panic in the Streets. Both of which are early examples of docu-noir with their style not as stark because of the more realistic documentary look that is also being sought. 

As a docu-noir, this film is based upon a true story and the film is shot entirely on location in a small town in Connecticut. Many of the residents of the small town were used as extras and in minor roles. 

Spoiler Alert

 Dana Andrews’ character is different from many noir protagonists because he is not as subject to the fatalism that pervades most noir pictures. Andrews has control of the situation and he finally overcomes his own ambition for the Governship to do the right thing and seek the truth about the murder. He never finds the truth, as the case is still unsolved, but he does not convict an innocent man.


 This is a solid film with lots of solid acting. The cast is rather large, but each character has enough depth to set them apart from one another. It is not a visually striking as many of the better film noirs, but that can be explained by Kazan’s desire for a measure of realism.

 The first two-thirds of the film are much better than the last third. The courtroom scenes that dominate the ending of the film are almost laughable and any chance at realism is thrown out the window with the ridiculous proceedings that would have been ridiculous even for 1947 audiences.

 I still recommend this film, as it gives an eye toward what would eventually develop into a style for Kazan, because many of the actors are noir regulars that make most films worth watching, and because the portrayal of corruption is rather complex and ironic with the “reformers” being just as corrupt as the system they are attempting to reform.


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Chiaroscuro Lighting

May 11, 2009 at 9:46 PM (Elements of Film Noir) ()

Perhaps no single stylistic visual element of film noir is more pervasive than that of chiaroscuro lighting. Chiaroscuro lighting is an artistic term dating back to the Renaissance that is noted by the contrast between dark and light. It is often times used in a bold manner so that it has a noticeable and dramatic effect on the entire composition of a work. 

When people talk of the shadows and strange lighting of film noir, it is usually chiaroscuro lighting they are noticing. A dark room with streetlights bisecting a criminal as the light flows through partially opened blinds is a common film noir scene. Cinematographers used low-key lighting to get this effect because of its ability to show distinctness between light and dark areas. 

One of the reasons many of the films of the 1940’s and 50’s have the “look” that came to be known as noir is due to small budgets. A cheap set looks much better when draped in darkness and shadow. When directors and cinematographers wanted to highlight something, they would simply spray the light specifically where they wanted, thus creating distinct contrasts. 

The examples of chiaroscuro lighting in film noir are virtually endless. You can watch any of these great, old films and see one example after another. It is this type of lighting that adds to the beauty, suspense, and surreal nature of these visually stunning films. You can find chiaroscuro lighting in varying degrees in today’s films, but nothing like what existed during the film noir heyday of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Chiaroscuro lighting has a much greater effect on a black and white film and loses much of its effect if used in a color picture.

 Chiaroscuro lighting, being combined with the other elements of noir, such as existentialism, fatalism, the dark city and the most catastrophic war of all time hanging over everyone’s head, helps to increase the drama and the reach of these films even today.

 Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer

Notice how the light coming in from the window brightens only the face of Jane Greer and partially that of Robert Mitchum. The rest of the room is dark and the contrast is high between Greer’s face and everything else in the shot.

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May 6, 2009 at 12:33 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )

Tension is a 1949 release that stars some now relatively unknown stars but who where familiar faces to audiences during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Richard Basehart is the protagonist Warren Quimby/Paul Southern who is best known by American audiences today as the narrator for the original version of Knight Rider, but became a highly recognizable international star not long after this film for Las strada. Those who are familiar with noir know Basehart from several other films such as He Walked By Night, 14 Hours and House on Telegraph Hill.  

Accompanying Basehart in this film are a couple of sexy stars of the day in Audrey Totter playing Quimby’s wife Claire and Cyd Charisse playing Warren’s eventual love interest Mary Chandler. Also notable is Barry Sullivan in one of his best roles as the police lieutenant Collier Bonnabel. 

Audrey Totter as Claire Quimby is a real piece of work. She is a femme fatale, possibly the deadly type. She runs around on Warren, even allowing herself to be picked up at the counter of his own drug store/soda fountain. Warren saves his money to buy her a house on the beach but she will not even get out of the car to look at it.

 It is only a matter of time before Warren finds out that Claire is running around on him and just about that time she decides to leave him for a more masculine and supposedly richer guy, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), who already has a home on a secluded beach. 

The story begins to pick up after Warren confronts Claire and Barney on the beach and takes a bit of a beating from Barney. It is rather far fetched, but in noir we are used to plot elements not always adding up, but Warren decides it is time for a new identity and gets contacts to replace his glasses. A four-eyed geek he will be no more, ala Superman. With his new look, he becomes Paul Southern and begins to plot the murder of Barney Deager. 

Warren, as Paul Southern, takes up residence in an apartment complex and immediately runs into Mary Chandler (Cyd Charisse). There could be no better luck and there is an immediate flash of interest between the two and she becomes his girl all the while he is plotting how to murder Deager. No offense to Audrey Totter, but one look at Cyd Charisse and I would have forgotten all about Claire and any vendetta. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the accompanying photo.

 At the moment of truth, with a dagger to Deager’s throat, Warren can’t go through with it. However, in true noir fashion, Deager winds up dead the next morning any way and the hunt begins for Paul Southern.

 Warren is happy in his new life and feels better about himself after not killing Deager. Warren is ready to move on with Mary and forget about Claire and Barney, but this is a noir and even his new life is about to be turned upside down as Claire shows up the next morning at their home and not long after that, Lieutenant Bonnabel. Arriving with Bonnabel is another Lieutenant, Blackie Gonsales, played by William Conrad of Jake and the Fatman fame as well as one of the hit men in The Killers.

 In true Superman style, Bonnabel and Gonsales have a hard time tracking down Paul Southern because they just can’t seem to notice that Warren is just Paul Southern with glasses on and they know where he lives and works.

 It all comes to a head in Paul Southern’s apartment with all five of the main characters stuffed into one room and the guilty one gives themselves away due to their own treachery. 

Barry Sullivan narrates throughout, but it is not overbearing and his voice only comes into the film on a few occasions after the beginning prologue. I think Sullivan is at his best in this film and at times it appears that he and William Conrad are going to steal the picture from Basehart and the ladies.

 Tension has some definite film noir stylistic elements. The way the whole scene where Warren can’t go through with the murder of Deager is pure noir with low angle shots, bisecting shadows and some nice flickering lights bouncing off the ceiling. It would have been more appealing if there would have been a few more long takes in the film to help create more tension as the film grinds toward the end.

 Tension is not what I would call a visually stunning film. It lacks somewhat in visual style and the score is a bit too much, but the story pulls you in and the acting is top-notch. Basehart shows his acting chops in this film, basically playing two different characters as Southern is a much more confident man than the milk toast Warren. Basehart, Sullivan, Totter, Charisse, and Conrad are all excellent in this film and their performances alone make this a must see film noir.

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Where Danger Lives

May 4, 2009 at 4:47 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )


Where Danger Lives, a 1950 release directed by John Farrow (The Big Clock, His Kind of Woman, Night Has a Thousand Lives) and starring Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue, certainly fits the bill as a film noir. It is another film in which Mitchum falls in love with a beautiful femme fatale and she strings him along and gets him into situations he never should have found himself in otherwise. 

The film is set in San Francisco, though most of the movie is filmed on set. Mitchum plays a doctor named Jeff Cameron who is not the tough guy Mitchum normally played in his noir career. You can’t say this is Mitchum’s best work, but it is certainly not his worst. It is Mitchum as his most somnambulistic (sure it is a real word) as he spends much of the film suffering from a concussion. 

The noir elements of this film don’t really begin until Domergue (Margo Lannington) is introduced as one of Cameron’s patients after she tries to commit suicide. This is where you get a low angle shot of Mitchum and the shadows cutting across the walls in the background. Though they were not conscience of producing noir films at the time, it still gives you the sense that Farrow is telling you Margo is the dark element. It is Margo’s unstableness, deceit and sex appeal that drive the movie as well as Mitchum’s obsession with her. 

Mitchum drops his stable nurse girlfriend Julie Dorn, played by Maureen O’Sullivan, to go with the stunning beauty Margo who is anything but boring. She is also rich, which never hurts. Quickly into the film you find out that Margo, who has been telling Jeff about her father, was really talking about her older, rich husband Frederick Lannington played splendidly by the great Claude Rains. 

Rains is debonair and proper as always until Jeff doesn’t like the way Frederick is treating Margo. A fight ensues in which, a drunken Jeff take a few licks to the head from a fire poker before knocking old man Lannington out. Jeff stumbles off to the bathroom to lick his wounds and when he returns he finds Margo standing over a dead Frederick. She makes Jeff think he died because of the fight and at this point Jeff is at the mercy of Margo.   

Fate, an almost definitive component of film noir, and Margo lead Jeff around by his shirt collar for the rest of the film. He is a stand-up guy, which is rare among noir protagonists, and becomes subjected to events out of his normal experiences as a middle class doctor. “There is no choice now,” is muttered by Cameron as they happen upon a roadblock the couple thinks is for them but is really for contraband fruits and vegetables. 

It is fate that puts them on the road in the first place, as they think the police are looking for them at the airport when they have other reasons for asking about the couple. Both Jeff and Margo are subjected to the whims of her erratic mental state and the winds of destiny.   

Cameron’s degrading physical condition makes him susceptible to the influence of Margo and gets him deeper and deeper into a world that he does not belong. He retains his ethics throughout, a rarity in noir, though that is the only thing he can control. The pair is like a pinball, smacking into one bumper, just to be smacked into another. They don’t even have control over getting married, as they are forced into a ceremony because of some Hitchcockian incident with “Whisker Week” in some strange little down. They can’t pay the fine for not sporting a beard, and are suddenly whisked away (pun intended) to get married. 

Where Danger Lives is good because of Mitchum, Raines and Domergue as well as the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. This was Farrow’s first film for RKO, a studio with a great noir tradition, and he had many of the technicians from RKO that had already been greatly experienced in the early noirs. 

Farrow works well with his technicians in this film and they give the film a great tension and almost extreme claustrophobia. If there is a scene with only Mitchum or Domergue, then the shot is generally tight and when the camera is pulled back, you will find many actors crowding the shot. In other shots, the ceilings, walls or the interior of their vehicle will crowd the shot.

  Spoiler Alert

 There has been some considerable debate about whether or not Mitchum should have died in the end. The protagonist doesn’t have to die in the end for a film to be considered a noir. Just because he lives doesn’t mean it is a happy ending. Jeff Cameron suffered a great deal and who knows if Julie will ever take him back. And who knows how much his little foray adversely affected his career as a doctor.

 I think the film would have been just as good either way as there is little to be gained by killing Jeff. I think the biggest decision was whether or not Margo lived or died. If she had lived, the ending would have changed the film. If she had lived, would Jeff have followed her across the border? Or, would he have been shot trying to get across, or would he have eventually succumbed to his head injury because of the lack of medical help even though he was a doctor?

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