Out of the Past

April 5, 2010 at 8:58 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , , )


“How big a chump can you get to be?”  Jeff Marcum

There are very few film noir films as “noir” as Out of the Past. Out of the Past was released in 1947 and includes several of the biggest names of the genre. Robert Mitchum stars along with Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. This was only the second film for Douglas, but he seems already fully formed as menacing, smooth, and able to explode at the drop of a hat. In addition to these stars, noir character actors Rhonda Fleming, Steve Brodie, Paul Valentine, and Richard Webb also have significant roles.   

This film is directed by Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur was a Frenchman who spent much of his career in America. His directing credits featured some early horror films such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. Later in his career he moved into television, directing, among many vehicles, The Barbara Stanwyck Show. His noir credits also include Nightfall

Nicholas Musucara was the cinematographer for the film. Musucara was the cinematographer on a great number of well-known film noirs including Clash by Night, Roadblock, The Blue Gardenia, and what is considered to be the first film noir ever, The Stranger on the Third Floor

Out of the Past revolves around the laconic, but smooth, Jeff Bailey (Mitchum). Bailey is the owner of a service station in a small, out-of-the-way town. One day Joe Stepahanos (Valentine) stops by and recognizes Jeff as a P.I. that double crossed Valentine’s boss a few years before. Bailey has tried to settle down and put his past behind him, but this chance meeting puts him back into the seedy world he was all too familiar with. Bailey agrees to meet again with Whit Sterling (Douglas), a crime boss of some sort, to settle things and hopefully move on with his life. 

This meeting also leads him back into the arms of Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer). Kathie had been Whit’s girl, but, as a part of the double cross, Jeff ran off with her only to be found out by his P.I. partner Jack Fisher (Brodie). This is when the relationship with Kathy soured abruptly and Jeff decided it was time to become an obscure service station owner.   

Elements of Film Noir (Spoilers) 

Out of the Past is quintessential noir. Virtually all the elements of film noir can be found in this film. The use of shadows and key lighting dominates the atmosphere of the film. Approximately 75 percent of the film is shot at night and there is a clear distinction in atmosphere between Jeff Bailey’s world and Jeff Marcum’s world. 

Mithcum’s, Greer’s, and Douglas’s characters could be used as the prime examples of three of the essential noir character types. Jeff is one of the most doomed characters (chump protagonists) of all film noir. From the very beginning you get the sense that he is not going to make it, regardless of the few glimmers of hope that appear. He tries to get away from the dark world, but no matter how far he goes; it isn’t far enough. 

Kathie Moffat is second to only Phyllis Dietrichson as a film noir femme fatale. She can con anyone with her sex appeal and charm, but the only thing she cares about is keeping her self out of trouble and in a comfortable position. She is the downfall of at least two men and is without remorse. “Sure I shot him” Kathy says. “I’m not sorry about that.”

Jeff finally understands Kathy, as shown when he tells her, “You’re like a leaf that blows from one gutter to another.” By this point it is too late.  Jeff has already decided that she has the best of him and his only way to take her down is to take himself down in the process. 

Whit Sterling is perfectly played by Douglas as the smooth talking crime boss. He threatens with charm and innuendo, but you know that he cares not a thing for you and will put a knife in your back as soon as it is to his advantage. 

From the very beginning of the film, you can see the contrast between the small town and the city. Stephanos stops at Jeff Bailey’s gas station wearing a long, dark trench coat and smoking a cigarette. He has stepped out of the noir world just long enough to drag Jeff back in. The juxtaposing of the two worlds adds to the atmosphere of each, especially the dark world that dominates most of the film. 

The cool banter you expect from the best noir films is ever-present in Out of the Past. Mitchum is as smooth as in any film and gets to throw out lines like, “Let’s go down to the bar. You can cool off while we try to impress each other.”

 Recommendation  

Out of the Past is at the top of most connoisseurs’ list of the best film noirs of all-time. Not only is it one of the best examples of the genre, it is one of the best films of any genre. If you are interested enough to be reading this review, it should be the next movie you watch, and it should be watched more than once. Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas are all great in this film, and the supporting cast is brilliant. The story keeps you interested, and the atmosphere is amazingly set by Tourneur and cinematographer Musuraca. 

(Spoilers) 

This film is Mitchum at his laconic best, Douglas is as smooth and ruthless as any of his performance, and the women are beautiful and evil. Out of the Past has it all, even the not-Hollywood ending. Jeff says it best. “Build my gallows high, baby!”

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While the City Sleeps

March 10, 2010 at 2:41 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , )


 

“Get me the killer.”

 While the City Sleeps is a 1956 film noir that features a Who’s Who of noir names and faces. It is directed by one of the greatest film directors of all-time, Fritz Lang. The cast is filled with noir regulars Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Howard Duff, Rhonda Fleming, and Robert Warwick. You would be hard pressed to find another film noir with such a star studded cast.

 This film comes near the end of the heyday of noir films and also at the end of the heyday for several of its stars. The booze was already catching up to Dana Andrews at this point, and it was beginning to show. Thomas Mitchell was to appear in only a few more films after While the City Sleeps. Ida Lupino was about to turn her attention to television and directing. Finally, Fritz Lang made only two more American films after While the City Sleeps.

 Despite the names attached to the film, it is relatively unknown and hard to find (Thank You TCM). It is based in a New York City media empire that spans the newswire, newspaper, and television. These three entities are competing to be the first to break the story of the capture of the “Lipstick Killer” who is murdering young women in the city.

 Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) has just inherited the media empire from his deceased father (Robert Warwick) and is holding a competition for his second in command. Griffith, Mark Loving (George Sanders), and Harry Kritzer (James Craig) are the three in contention. The person who catches the “Lipstick Killer” gets the job. Let the backstabbing begin.

 Ed Mobley (Andrews) is a television anchorman and former crime beat journalist who is reluctantly brought into the power struggle by John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) the newspaper editor. All the while, Mobley is attempting to marry Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) and fight of the advances of Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino).

 Elements of Noir

 There are some half-hearted noir elements in this film, though nothing really jumps out. Both Lupino’s and Rhonda Fleming’s characters are watered-down femme fatales. They are selfish and backstabbing, but neither is murderous like a Phyllis Dietrichson. The city provides the backdrop, but most of the action is in the bar or the newsroom.

 The characters are flawed, but not dark and disturbed. The screenplay seems to want to force their bad nature on us with dialogue like, “I wonder what the nice people are doing tonight.” The problem is that the actions of the characters show them to be petty rather than having any psychological demons to deal with. 

 Visually, there are several shots and scenes that stand out as noir, such as the chase at the end and a few of the darker shots of the city, but this is not a visually notable film. However, like many noir films, While the City Sleeps does push the envelope, especially when it comes to sex. It is one of the raciest films of the era and is a bit shocking when you realize that it was made in 1956.

 Lines like “Get your things off. It’s your wedding day, you wanna look nice,” and “You can see right through this thing,” are only a small sampling of the sexually explicit dialogue that runs through the film.

 Recommendation

 You would think that with the immense talent involved in this film it would stand as an elite film noir. Sadly, this is not the case. It is not a terrible movie, but certainly disappointing. Dana Andrews’s performance is inconsistent, though at times he shows the presence that made him one of the greatest noir stars of all-time.

 Ida Lupino, playing the gossip columnist Mildred Donner, gives the best performance of the group. This is one of her most flamboyant and racy characters she was ever able to play and she was up to the challenge. She seems to carry both Andrews and George Sanders on her shoulders in their scenes together. You will never see Sanders so bland in any film.

 The most disappointing performance is that of Fritz Lang. The opening shows some interesting visual style and the chase through the subway at the end shows a flash of Lang’s greatness, but the rest of the film is visually boring. In addition, some of the greatest actors of the era give flat performances and the film is simply not menacing enough.

 The film has a two-headed monster of a plot that actually works pretty well. The biggest flaw is the eventual ploy used to catch the killer, which is a bit ludicrous, though the plot is not the problem. The problem is that many of these actors were passed their prime and the director was certainly mailing in the end of his career.

 The film is watchable and does hold your attention, but this is certainly a film that is less than the sum of its parts.

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Dead Reckoning

February 10, 2010 at 4:33 PM (Film Noir Reviews, Uncategorized) (, , , , )


“Roulette wheels have a way of running over me.” That pretty much sums it up for Capt. Rip Murdock. On his way back from the war with his buddy, soon to be medal of honor recipient Johnny Drake, Rip probably felt as if the good times were about to begin. Little did he know that the roulette wheel of fate was about to roll over both he and Johnny. Living in the world of film noir, Murdock should have known as much. Right from the beginning, you know something is going to go terribly wrong in Dead Reckoning. 

Dead Reckoning is a 1947 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott and directed by John Cromwell. Other major supporting characters include Morris Carnovsky, Charles Cane, William Prince and George Chandler. Cromwell also directed another notable noir The Racket and is the father of actor James Cromwell, the murdering police chief Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential. John Cromwell, like several other noir directors, was a victim of the black list and had to endure 7 years in exile from his chosen career.   

Though Dead Reckoning is rather unknown today, it is one of the better Bogart noirs. The story is told in flashbacks with voice over. As Capt. “Rip” Murdock (Bogart) and Sgt. Johnny Drake (Prince) are traveling on a train, Johnny finds out that he is to receive the the Medal of Honor and jumps off the train. Rip then gets the assignment to find him. 

Rip does  find him—in the morgue, on a slab. From then on, Rip’s journey is to find out what happened and who is responsible. He ends up at a club, where the singer Coral Chandler (Scott) and the bartender Louis Ord (George Chandler) are friends of Johnny. Coral is an old flame of Johnny’s before the war though she was married. The body of Coral’s husband was found and rather than proclaim innocence and let justice do its thing, Johnny, in normal noir fashion, takes off. He then uses a fake name to enlist and join the war so he can fade into oblivion. He should have known better as well.   

Elements of Noir 

There are few elements of noir that are missing from this film. It doesn’t hurt that two major noir stalwarts are in the film, Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. In addition, There is the femme fatale, a shadowy underworld of gambling and rackets, suave gangster types, plot twists, fate rearing its ugly head and some snappy dialogue. 

Johnny is the first victim of fate. He falls in love with Coral and then her husband is killed. He runs away to join the war and avoid a trial that would not be kind to him, he thinks. Johnny then becomes a big hero and is about to have his face plastered all over the headlines and newsreels causing him to set out on the run again. Fate also has a little in store for Rip, Coral and even Louis Ord the bartender. 

Visually, the film is strikingly dark, with virtually every scene in the film dominated by darkness and shadows. The few daylight scenes that are in the film seem out of place and take away from the power of the imagery of the rest of the film. The city as backdrop, hanging over and behind them, constantly adds to the noir aura of the film and the loneliness of virtually all the main characters.

 (Spoiler) 

Nothing in this film appears as it truly is. Rip at one moment seems as if he can take on the world, and the next minute, you can see his vulnerability and almost complete helplessness. Coral seems sincere one minute, in her white dress set off against the shadows, but is wearing black for much of the film and her jasmine perfume hangs in the air when Rip is blackjacked from behind.  

Recommendation 

Though it will not crack a list of the top film noirs of all time, Dead Reckoning certainly does not disappoint. If you like smoky nightclubs, husky voiced nightclub singers, a love triangle, never knowing exactly who the bad guy is, and some tough luck for your protagonist, then you will like Dead Reckoning

There are some problems with the film; Lizabeth Scott, though beautiful and sexy, is not much of an actress. The scene where she is serenading Rip is a bit painful, so much so that Bogart seems to be fighting the urge to end the scene. The voice over is a bit too much and some of the dialogue is over-the-top. The worst is thesnappy dialogue included in the voice over, such as “The only thing missing was the sledgehammer highball and the pair of snake eyes dice.” The baseball references are also annoying and just seem thrown in. 

The good things in the film are Bogart himself. Rip is reminiscent of Bogart’s Marlowe character in The Big Sleep. Just like in The Big Sleep, Bogart’s character throws together a few disguises and manners of speaking. Mr. Martinelli is a wonderfully smooth bad guy who is every bit the match for Rip. The film draws you into the story from the beginning and keeps you guessing as to whether or not Coral is a schemer or just unlucky like Rip and Johnny. 

While there are better films, if you ever get a chance to see Dead Reckoning it is well worth the time.

 

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Dark Passage

January 31, 2010 at 5:07 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , )


Dark Passage is a 1947 film noir starring Humphrey Bogart and his new bride Lauren Bacall. It was the 3rd of 4 films they were to make together and the first in which they were married. The film is based upon the novel of the same name by David Goodis and the screenplay was written by Delmer Daves who also served as the director. Other members of the cast include the great Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Bennett and Clifton Young. 

Delmer Daves is not a household name among noir aficionados, with Dark Passage really being his only noir directing credit. However, he did direct the original 3:10 to Yuma, which is a wonderful noirish western that you may prefer over the remake from a few years ago. Daves was an accomplish screenwriter, who finally got the chance to direct with Destination Tokyo starring Cary Grant and John Garfield in 1943. 

Clifton Young (Baker) had small roles in a few other noir films such as Possessed and Deception, though this is his most important noir role. Bruce Bennett (Bob) seemed to go back and forth between westerns and noirs, appearing in Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogie and other noirs such as Mildred Pierce and Mystery Street.  

Agnes Moorehead is a wonder and steals the rug out from under both Bogart and Bacall in this film. There is probably no bigger Bogart fan in the world than me, but the best performance in this film is Agnes’s portrayal of the selfish, over-bearing Madge. Agnes rose to prominence along with most of her entire cast masts with Citizen Kane and continued to star in Orson Welles films and also appeared in the noir 14 Hours.  

 The film is noted for its POV focus, much like Lady in the Lake, though it is less a gimmick in this film and more a part of the plot. Bogart plays Vincent Parry, and the movie opens with him escaping from prison. He is picked up by a man named Baker (Clifton Young), but Baker becomes wise to the fact that Parry is an escaped convict. Parry then slugs Baker and begins to steal his clothes and car. However, a beautiful young painter Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) comes to his rescue and drives him out of trouble and to her apartment. 

It turns out the Irene is a devotee of Parry and visited his trial. Parry was convicted of killing his wife, as was Irene’s father. Irene is certain that both Parry and her father were innocent. However, in Parry’s case, the marriage was seriously on the rocks and his love for his wife was virtually non-existent. 

Because his face plastered all over the newspapers and his description all over the airwaves, Parry decides, with the help of a saintly, crooked cabbie, that plastic surgery is the ticket to ultimate escape. Even after the surgery, Parry has difficulties hiding from the cops. He ultimately decides to find out who killed his wife, so he can clear his name and live a normal life. 

Elements of Noir (Spoilers) 

This film is packed with elements of noir. The title lets you know right away that the film is going to be dark, much of the film is shot at night in San Francisco, and several of the characters exhibit the characteristics of those that inhabit the noir world. Vincent Parry is a man who has been dealt a horrible blow by fate, one that he feels unable to do much about. 

Parry wants to find the person who killed his wife, but he also seriously considers simply running away. He says, “…got the Indian sign on me. It seems I can’t win.” Parry thinks he has no way to win against what has already determined for him. Even though it is not true in Parry’s situation, the cabbie reveals a common noir thread—fatalism. He talks about a friend of his that got into a big fight with his wife and threw a bread knife at her. “She ducked,” the cabbie said. “Maybe if your wife had ducked there’d be no trial, no Quentin, no on the lamb.” 

Irene Jansen is the damaged woman who helps the damaged man get things back together. She is too nice to be a femme fatale, but she does have the stones to help out a man escaping from prison. 

Madge, on the other hand, is pure noir and black in her soul. She cares “nothing about no one” and it is mentioned several times early in the film that even if she doesn’t want something, she can’t stand for someone else to have it. She is the femme fatale, though lacking a bit in the femme department. 

Though he had little experience with noir, director Daves produces some wonderful images. The shadows and chiaroscuro lightning are wonderful in this film, and the long, wide shots of San Francisco in the daylight are wonderful, reminiscent of sprawling wide open shots you would see in a western.  

Recommendation  

While not Bogart’s best performance or his best film, Dark Passage is certainly a film noir treasure. It is wonderfully directed by Delmer Daves, Agnes Moorehead is great, and Bogart is still good in the movie, just not great. The story keeps you going and the gimmick does not take over the film like it does in Lady in the Lake

Bogart’s face is not seen in this film during the first hour, a rarity in the days of star power. The reason this works, more so than in Lady in the Lake, is that it is much more a part of the plot. Early in the film you see Bogart’s figure, but he remains in the shadows to help cover his face. Later on, he is covered by bandages because of the surgery. It is the taking off of the bandages that first reveals the face of Bogart, though all throughout the first hour, you know its Bogie because of the voice. 

This film does not get the recognition it deserves. Many only know it because of the early POV and that Bogie’s face is not seen for the first two-thirds of the film. However, when you are watching the film and in that world, you are entertained, on the edge of your seat in many instances and you want to know what is going to happen next. Add to that the great images and that is all you can truly ask of any film.

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Fear in the Night

December 23, 2009 at 4:25 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )


Fear in the Night is a little known noir from 1947 that is based upon a Cornell Woolrich story. Woolrich is one of the most well-known mystery and noir writers of all time. His writings formed the basis of many noir films such as The Chase, Black Angel and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Fear in the Night is directed by Maxwell Shane, who also contributed to the screenplay. Shane was a writer and director, though really only has a few noir credits, the only other of any note is Nightmare, which is also based upon a Woolrich story and stars Edward G. Robinson.

This film does not have many big names attached to it. It stars Paul Kelly, Ann Doran, Kay Scott, Jeff York and DeForest Kelley. The biggest name on the list is DeForest Kelley who later became well-known as Bones McCoy from both film and TV versions of Star Trek. Most of the other actors played bit parts in other noirs, most notable Jeff York and Paul Kelly, but never any really major roles to speak of.

The story focuses on a dream by Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) in which he and a beautiful, unknown lady kills a woman in a strangely mirrored room. The dream is so vivid that Vince feels as if he may have actually committed the murder. Then signs begin to show themselves, such as a key, some scrapes, blood and a coat button, that make Vince and his detective brother-in-law Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly) feel as if the murder may be possible.

Things take a turn for the worse for Vince when a picnic with his girlfriend Betty (Kay Scott), his sister (Ann Doran) and Cliff gets rained out, forcing the group to take shelter in what looks to be a deserted mansion. They make their way into the mansion and come across the strange mirrored room of Vince’s dream. As Cliff begins to think Vince could actually be guilty, the group is interrupted by Detective Torrence (Jeff York) who is investigating the murder of Mrs. Belnap.

From here on out it is touch and go as to Vince and Cliff attempt to find out if he really did murder Mrs. Belnap or if he was possibly set up.

Elements of Noir (Spoilers)

The lighting of the film is very noir. There are few darker pictures in terms of lighting that you will find. The use of psychology and dreams shows the influence of Freud, which is prevalent in a majority of film noirs. The opening of the film, which is the dream sequence, is similar to the drunken sequence in Moontide, though not as well-done and sets the stage for the psychological drama to come.

Vince Grayson is a noir protagonist who does have control over his fate; he is taken advantage of by those in power and by his own inability to recognize of what he is capable of. This film would be called a psychological thriller today, which would be the fate of many noirs.

The film certainly has its twists and turns and you are not sure for a long time whether or not Vince actually did the killing, but you do not see how his character could be capable of such a thing. The hypnotism angle is certainly something that would find itself the catalyst for a noir film and is treated as if it were an entirely new angle.

Recommendation

I have to say I don’t particularly recommend Fear in the Night. It is not a very well-done film. The acting is pretty bad across the board. It does have some good point. The look of the film is interesting in certain places, the ending with no soundtrack is really nice and there is potential in the story.

However, in addition to the bad acting, which is lead by DeForest Kelley, many of the plot points are incredibly contrived. The fact that their picnic, even though they were lead to the general area by Vince and his “feelings”, is next to the murder mansion. They really had no need to go to the mansion and then they just walk right in and begin treating the house as if it they lived there.   

Unless you are a Star Trek fanatic wanting to see DeForest Kelley’s first film role, or are a hardcore noir fan, this is not really a film you want to bother with. It has some interesting images, and you can see that the story itself has potential, but it was not realized fully, plot points leave you with questions and the acting is about as bad as it gets.

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Portrait in Black

December 17, 2009 at 5:56 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , )


Portrait in Black is a fairly late noir, released in 1960, that has an all-star noir cast. The films leading characters are played by the likes of Lana Turner, Richard Basehart, Lloyd Nolan, Anthony Quinn, John Saxon, and Sandra Dee. Turner, Basehart and Nolan are among noir elite and all three give good performances, though Basehart is the standout.

The film was directed by Michael Gordon who is a rather unknown director with only a few really low budget noir films such as An Act of Murder and Crime Doctor to his credit. The film was written by Ivan Goff, who’s screenwriting credits include the magnificent White Heat and later in his career, the TV series Charlie’s Angels.

The film is set in San Francisco and centers around a dying shipping magnate named Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan). His doctor David Rivers (Anthony Quinn) tends to Cabot in Cabot’s office overlooking his little shipping empire. Suddenly we are introduced to Cabot’s wife, Sheila (Lana Turner). She is much too young and virile for the aging and dying Cabot, but she is just right for the vigorous young doctor.

David and Sheila cannot wait for Matthew Cabot to die on his own. Sheila uses her womanly charms to convince the good doctor that he should finish the job ASAP and they can be together forever, and with more money than they know what to do with. The major problem with their plan is that Howard Mason (Richard Basehart), a smarmy little guy who is too smart for his own good, wants his hand on the shipping fortune and the widowed Cabot. He has been running the shipping business for several years and feels he is entitled. This is the struggle that forces the action in the movie and leads to the inevitable outcome.

Elements of Noir

This film, though just outside the heyday of the genre, does have noir elements. Shadows are used for effect in several instances, such as when Dr. Rivers is bathed in shadow just before the idea of murder is mentioned and is split down the middle as the idea of killing Cabot is discussed. Anytime murder is discussed or about to take place, shadows rule the image.

Also Dr. Rivers, like most men in noir, doesn’t seem to really be in control of himself. He would have never committed murder if he had been permitted to simply continue his practice. However, his weakness allowed him to get mixed up with a femme fatale, Sheila Cabot, and his fate was made. He lost control of his life at that point and was simply going along for the ride.

Recommendation

This is certainly a film noir, but not a very good one. It is sad to see such wonderful actors and a writer that has written some wonderful material to be involved in something so bad. This film fails on many fronts.

First of all, its imitation of Hitchcock goes far beyond simple influence. The director Michael Gordon tries way too hard to make the film look like a Hitchcock to the point of making it appear amateurish. Also, the soundtrack is incredibly obnoxious and makes you want to watch the film with the sound off.

The most disheartening part of the film is watching Anthony Quinn. Quinn is generally a wonderful actor, but in this film he is miscast entirely and poorly directed. His love scenes with Lana Turner are among the worst I have ever seen. You can certainly tell that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the scenes or the dialogue. The dialogue is horrible and the delivery no better.

If you are looking for a quality, obscure film noir, keep on looking. Portrait in Black is a nice noirish title, but the film does not deliver. The only reason to see this film is to see Basehart, who is the class of this film, but it really isn’t worth the hour and a half it takes from your life.

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La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast)

December 10, 2009 at 10:44 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , )


La Bete Humaine is a 1938 French film directed by Jean Renoir. Though many do not classify this film as a noir, it does have all the characteristics of a quintessential film noir. In fact, it is one of the very first examples of film noir, though not self-consciously so.  It was made a full two years before what is regarded by many as the first ever American film noir Stranger on the Third Floor.

La Bete Humaine is one of the many pairings of Renoir and the greatest French actor of all time, Jean Gabin. Gabin plays the protagonist, the troubled train engineer Jacques Lantier. The cast also includes the beautiful Simone Simon, playing Severine Roubaud, Colette Regis as Pecqueux and Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud. The film also gives you a glimpse of Renoir showing off his acting chops. Renoir plays Cabuche, the man falsely charged with the murder of Grandmorin, a rich and influential older gentleman.

There are very few opening sequences in the history of film that are as breathtaking and memorable as the train footage that opens La Bete Humaine. Both Renoir and Gabin were fascinated by trains, in fact, both got their train engineering license and Gabin operated real passenger trains as part of his research for the role. The train itself is the center piece of the entire film.  

The station chief Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux) is married to Severine (Simone Simon) and has to use the influence of her benefactor Grandmorin to get himself out of a jam, after he asserts is authority against a powerful official. Roubaud saves his job, but by doing so finds out that his wife had been a mistress of Grandmorin in the past and possibly still is. This he cannot take and forces Severine to come along to watch him kill Grandmorin.

Roubaud kills Grandmorin on a train and the only person to witness Roubaud and Severine come out of his car is Jacques (Gabin). Jacques is questioned by the police and denies seeing the couple because he is immediately smitten by the perceived innocence of Severine.

Jacques has problems of his own. He has these moods that come over him that he can’t control. Early on in the film, he almost strangles a childhood sweetheart of his before a train roaring by brings him out of the episode.

Jacques, of course, falls in love with Severine and she seems to fall in love with him, but it is hard to tell with her. She is too young and beautiful for her old and fat husband Roubaud who also has a jealousy complex and beats her when he feels the inclination.

Roubaud binds Severine to him through the murder of the Grandmorin, but the murder begins to wear on his conscious. He also knows that Severine is philandering with Jacques, but he seems to have lost interest in most everything, including her.

Jacques wants to run off with Severine, but she refuses, saying that Roubaud will turn her in and the only way out is if Jacques kills him. From this point on, the film only gets darker in spirit.

Elements of Noir

This film could be used in the classroom as a prime example of a film noir. Chiaroscuro lighting is prevalent throughout the film. Renoir takes a back seat to no one when it comes to the use of key light, shadows and contrasting light patterns to instill mood in a scene. Along with the look of the film, the story and character elements that you find in a noir are in abundance in La Bete Humaine.

If you are looking for a femme fatale, look no further than Severine. She makes every guy she knows fall in love with her and then attempts to bend them to her murderess will. She says she is in love, but it is hard to believe, because all she really cares about is her own interests.

The characters in La Bete Humaine are regular working class people, but that is common in noirs, Clash by Night is one of many American examples of working-class people as protagonists in a noir.

(Spoiler)

Jacques is a tortured soul who runs through life without the ability to control his own fortunes. Fate controls him, as it does most noir protagonists. He can’t kill Roubaud, who he desperately wants to, and then cannot control himself and kills Severine. Finally, flying along the tracks on his beloved train, he can’t take the guilt, he can’t take not having Severine, he can’t take not having control over his life: he ends his life. It doesn’t get much more noir than that.   

Recommendation

If you can handle the subtitles, La Bete Humaine is a great film for those interested in any genre. For film noir fans, it is a great early example of the genre. While Renoir was not trying to make a film noir, there was no such term at the time, he made one of the greats. The film is beautifully shot; you can watch it with the sound off and have an enjoyable experience simply through the stark images.

Jean Gabin is as good as it gets and you will not be able to take your eyes away from Simone Simon. The character actors are excellent, especially Colette Regis. This is truly one of the great Renoir films, and he made many good ones.

If you have never seen a Renoir film or a Gabin film, you should give them a shot. Gabin was a wonderful actor and Renoir is one of the greatest filmmakers of any genre, time, and in any language. If you give his films a shot, you will find a whole new world of film that you never realized was out there waiting to be discovered.

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Beware, My Lovely

November 24, 2009 at 11:34 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )


Beware, My Lovely, from 1952, is somehow a much forgotten noir even by those who are fans of the genre. What makes this so odd is the fact that it stars two of the most notable noir actors of all time. Robert Ryan, whose noir credits are as long as anyone’s, plays the psychopath Howard Wilton. Ida Lupino, who has an equally impressive noir resume, plays the widow Helen Gordon. 

The film also includes Taylor Holmes as Walter Armstrong and Barbara Whiting as Ruth Williams. Holmes appeared briefly and often uncredited in several other noirs while Whiting had a brief film career and is more well-known for her television appearances. Harry Horner directed Beware, My Lovely and is a relative unknown, though he did also direct Vicki, which is somewhat of a Laura knockoff.

Plot Outline 

Howard Wilton is a drifter who does odd jobs, mainly for widows, to make money. He moves from job to job and town to town. He is a version of the invisible man. The film begins with Wilton finishing up a job and when he goes to see the lady to collect his wages, she is no where to be found—until he opens the closet to get his coat. She has been murdered. 

Howard flees to the rail yard and jumps a train. He eventually shows up at the doorstep of Helen Gordon looking for work. Her husband was killed during the war (WWI) and she now runs a small boarding house. She could use a hand around the place and quickly puts Howard to work scrubbing the floors. 

Everything begins okay as Howard goes to work, but things quickly deteriorate. It doesn’t take long to realize that Howard has issues. He is antagonized by the picture of Helen’s husband in his soldier uniform and becomes incredibly paranoid over the tiniest things. The tension is quickly ratcheted up when you realize that Howard has locked all the doors from the inside and is holding the key in his pocket. Helen is trapped all alone in the home with Howard and he is becoming increasingly unstable. 

Elements of Noir 

This film is similar to Don’t Bother to Knock in that the elements of noir are concentrated within the psych of the characters. There is a murder, and probably many more, but there is no femme fatale, the lighting is standard and virtually the entire picture takes place during the day away from the city. 

However, Ryan’s Howard Wilton is a bonafide disturbed human being. He is fragmented from the rest of the world. “I can’t remember anyone caring about me,” he says to Helen. He has no friends. He is a rambler and is most certainly not a man in control of his own fate. Ryan is emasculated because he was not fit enough to serve in the war and this is heightened by the young Ruth Williams taunting him for cleaning the floors. “I don’t see many men polishing floors.” 

Howard Wilton seems to be someone who is not even in control over his own nature. He doesn’t appear to be a violent person at his core, but it seems to happen in spite of his own real desire to be normal. 

Ida plays a widow, who is a regular role in film noir, who is forced to take care of herself. She is not focused on happiness or the more trivial matter like the younger Ruth Williams. Helen Gordon has to focus on making ends meet and survival. She is an example of the war coming home and inflicting its pain on those not directly involved. It is somewhat rare for the story to be set in 1918, but that fact that it is the aftermath of a war offers the same effect.   

Recommendation (Spoilers) 

Beware, My Lovely is not a top tier film noir, but it is a good movie and has some excellent elements that make it worth watching.  It is a film that makes you uncomfortable as the viewer. Even though Helen’s home is large, there is a definite claustrophobic feeling to watching the movie. This comes from Helen being trapped in the home and because you as the viewer are rarely shown anything outside of the home once Howard arrives. 

The tension in the film is similar to what you would get in a Hitchcock film. You keep expecting Howard to completely flip and do real harm to Helen. Beware, My Lovely has its twists but they are not really shocking, you see them happening, but they reinforce the tension. You want Howard out of that house and it seems so close several times. 

This film is basically Robert Ryan versus Ida Lupino. These two great actors do an excellent job handling the bulk of the work. Lupino is one of the best looking old maids you will ever see and Ryan looks like his head is going to explode any minute, of course he made a living in those roles. In this role, however, he is much more vulnerable than normal but just as volatile. 

The script is a little dry and the cinematography is lacking any sort of real style. There are some attempts at style: the wide shot of Howard running through the rail yard is nice and Horner attempts a few strange angles in the home. 

I do recommend this film, mainly because of Ryan and Lupino, but also because of the way it holds the tension throughout the film and by the way it keeps you interested even though you rarely get a glimpse of anything but the inside of the home.

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Don’t Bother to Knock

November 18, 2009 at 4:25 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , )


     Don’t Bother to Knock is a lesser known noir from 1952, though it does have some major names attached to it. The leading roles go to noir veteran Richard Widmark as Jed Towers (great name); Anne Bancroft in her first film role is Jed’s off again, on again lady Lyn Lesley and the incredible looking Marilyn Monroe plays the mixed up Nell Forbes. In addition, to the stars, the supporting case also has some noir heavyweights, including Elisha Cook Jr. (is there a film noir that doesn’t have him somewhere in the cast) as well as Jim Backus and Willis Bouchey. Also included in the cast is the sister of James Cagney, Jeanne Cagney.

     The film is directed by Roy Ward Baker, who is not a big name in film noir, though he did direct Linda Darnell in Night Without Sleep and Robert Ryan in Inferno. The film is based upon a novel by Charlotte Armstrong and the screenplay is by Daniel Taradash. Taradash has some quality screenwriting credits, most notably From Here to Eternity for which he won an Oscar. He is also credited as one of several writers on the Bogart noir Knock on Any Door.

     Two things this film is probably most noted for: one is its attempt to highlight Marilyn Monroe as a serious actress and not just a pretty face, and two is just how concretely it illustrates mental disturbance as an illness. For the time, it was a really disturbing picture of mental illness and its self-destructiveness. Marilyn simply cannot help but ruin everything she touches.    

     The plot centers around an elevator man in a swanky hotel named Eddie (Elisha Cook Jr.) who has gotten a relative of his, Nell a job as a baby sitter. Nell is supposed to watch this little girl while her parents attend a banquet where the father (Jim Backus) gets some sort of award.

     As this is all getting set up, you see Jed Towers in the hotel drinking away his sorrows due to, of course, woman troubles. The woman is the hotel lounge singer Lyn Lesley. There is a small hint of trouble with Nell in the beginning. You can tell early on that Nell has had, at the very least, some bad luck and that Eddie is a father figure of a sort, trying to get her back on her feet.  

     While Nell is babysitting, she begins trying on the clothes and jewelry of the little girl’s mom. Nell catches the attention of Jed through the window as she twirls around in the dress and jewelry. Jed gives her a call in an attempt to get over Lyn. Nell agrees to allow Jed to come to her room with a bottle while the little girl sleeps. Jed doesn’t know that Nell is just babysitting.  

     It doesn’t take long for Jed to realize that Nell is not quite playing with a full deck and he soon tries to get himself out of the situation. Initially, he does distance himself from Nell and tries again to patch things up with Lyn, but it is a film noir and you know that he is going to get sucked into the mix in ways that are out of his control. This is when Nell really begins to crack-up.   

Noir Elements 

     Some of the more notable features of film noir are missing from this film. It is not a hard-boiled crime flick. It doesn’t have any stunning cinematography, and the chiaroscuro lighting is done with a very light hand. However, the film is most certainly a noir.

     The focus is on Marilyn and her disturbed character Nell. What really puts Don’t Bother to Knock in the category of a film noir is its depiction of cynicism, fragmentation and how deeply it delves into an unhinged world. Of the 4 main characters, there is not one who seems to be at peace with themselves or the world they live in. Also, for most of the movie, Nell, Jed and Lyn all seem to be riding along on the wings of fate. They don’t seem to have any control over what is going on with their lives. This lack of control of one’s own life is a staple of film noir.

     Don’t Bother to Knock was certainly ahead of its time when it comes to showing realistic depictions of someone on the brink of either suicide or a total meltdown. The scars on Nell’s wrists are certainly something that would have been at least a little shocking to audiences in 1952.

     Another thing film noir is noted for is snappy dialogue and there is plenty of that. Most of it coming from Widmark’s character or Joe the bartender played by Willis Bouchey. When asked by Widmark if he and his wife fight much, Joe quickly replies “Some of the time she sleeps.”

 

Recommendation (Spoilers) 

     Though I would not call this film a must see, it is a film that I recommend, mostly because of the excellent work of the cast.

     Marilyn is amazing to look at and she pulls off the role. Despite her voice and her naïve appeal, she still shows the evil that is within her. She is capable of anything and if it were not for the fact that it would not have made it past the censors in 1952; I would have believed that her character would have pushed that little girl right out the window. 

     The cinematography is not the best and the direction is average, but the cast is excellent and they all pull off their roles admirably. If it were not for Marilyn, you would come out of this film talking about the beauty of Anne Bancroft. If you are wowed by Marilyn and/or Richard Widmark then this certainly is must see. They are both great in this film. Widmark is not quite as good as he is in Kiss of Death or Pick up on South Street, but it is certainly a worthy effort from him.   

    

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The Man Who Wasn’t There

September 24, 2009 at 7:00 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , , )


The Man Who Wasn’t There is a new film noir from the Coen Brothers. It was released in late 2001 and chronicles the happenings in the life of 1940’s barber Ed Crane played by Billy Bob Thornton. Even though it is 60 years removed from the beginning of noir, it certainly falls into the genre, purposefully and includes a great deal of the elements central to a great film noir.

Ed Crane is a barber who is married to Doris Crane (Frances McDormand) and seems to just flow through his life without saying much or caring about much. Doris, who may be considered the femme fatale, is cheating on Ed with her boss, which is department store manager Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini).

Ed wants to be a dry cleaner and gets involved with huckster Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) in what he thinks is the beginning of a dry cleaning franchise. Ed and Doris don’t have much of a life together, she likes bingo and booze, Ed doesn’t like much of anything except the possibility of no longer being a barber.  

Even though Ed says very little except in his voice over, the film has its twists and turns. Big Dave turns up dead, Doris is put on trial for the murder and without giving away the ending, basically everyone involved is worse for wear by the end.

Film Noir Elements 

Ed is certainly disenchanted with the world he lives in and even with himself. He is an anti-hero of a sort who seems to be whisked along without much control over anything. In fact, maybe more so that any other film noir protagonist, he is completely left to the whims of fate (other than his blackmail of Big Dave). 

There is plenty of chiaroscuro lighting, the work of Roger Deakins as cinematography takes you back to the heyday of noir in the 40’s and 50’s. This is no more evident than in the fight scene in Big Dave’s office. 

The biggest difference between The Man Who Wasn’t There and traditional film noir is the language and the pace. Though it does have its twists and turns, the pace is rather slow because Ed is slow. Also, nowadays you can get away with sailor-like language that most people use in their daily lives.  

There are numerous examples of homage to famous film noirs such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Shadow of a Doubt and The Asphalt Jungle, which adds to the film for noir buffs. 

Recommendation 

If you haven’t seen this film, you should. It is a great film for noir fans as well as anyone who really wants to see a film that is complex, profound, darkly funny and sad at the same time. Billy Bob is great, the Coen brothers fail to disappoint once again and the cast is wonderful. Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Badalucco and Richard Jenkins are all great in their roles. 

This film does require you to get involved, it may seem slow, but, as with most Coen brothers films, there is a lot going on if you just take the time to pay attention. The film does a great job at setting the stage early. Bringing you quickly into the life of Ed and it takes only a few lines of his voice over for you to get a feel for Ed’s personality. You will quickly find that Ed is one film noir character you will never forget.

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