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When a blind ex-husband wearing a boutonnière shows up late in the
evening demanding $1400, a good night is probably not in store.
Especially when his former spouse's drunken excuse for not paying is
"that sailor" must have stolen it. Thus begins Deadline at Dawn, an
early noir that's not only a taut and agreeably complicated little
mystery but that also aspires, and largely succeeds, in constructing an
The sailor (Bill Williams) on shore leave has, as sailors on leave do, drunk too much, gambled away his money, been lured up to a wicked woman's apartment, and fallen into a blackout. (The movie's based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, writing as William Irish, who knew whereof he wrote.) When he climbs back out, thanks to black coffee supplied by a kindly newsie, $1400 tumbles out of his pocket.
Trying to piece together the evening, he strays into a dime-a-dance palace, where he meets a would-be hard case (Susan Hayward in her 24th movie!). Making small talk with his bored-to-the-bone partner, Williams speculates whether a rainstorm might break the heat wave. "Such things have been known to happen," replies Hayward, thereby lowering the thermometer pronto. (The quirky, bristling dialogue by Clifford Odets is one of the many amenities of Deadline at Dawn.) Of course, Hayward inevitably thaws enough to offer counsel to Williams and serve as sidekick in his quest to make amends (he's a square-rigger right out of one of the square states). They return to the robbed woman's apartment only to find her (Lola Lane) dead. It's unclear to the befuddled Williams, and to Hayward, whether he might indeed have been the culprit. Trouble is, he's taking a 6 a.m. bus back to Norfolk, where he's stationed; there's only a few hours left to clear his conscience or fess up to the police.
An immigrant cabbie (Paul Lukas) improbably volunteers as a third ally, and the three, together and separately, embark on various sleuthing expeditions through the dark and soupy streets of Manhattan. For a movie that clocks in under an hour and a half, Deadline at Dawn boasts a cast just short of epic. Among the principals who intersect are Joseph Calleia, as a ruthless yet debonair gangster; Osa Massen as a lame housewife expelled from the rubble of Europe; and Steven Geray as a well-mannered stalker. Joining them are countless players with brief walk-ons, comic or poignant, of the 8-million-stories-in-the-naked-city variety, giving the movie the sole directorial effort by east-coast theater maven Harold Clurman its distinctive tone and texture. (Jules Dassin must have borrowed greedily from it when he came to film his own The Naked City during the sweltering New York summer of 1947.) Deadline at Dawn falls short of perfection. It's too short for all it contains, it's a bit sooty from all the red herrings, and its way out verges on the-butler-did-it (or maybe Roger Ackroyd). But a lot of RKO talent went into its making (in addition to the above, Nicholas Musuraca photographed it, and Hanns Eisler later to become a serious Leftist composer in East Germany wrote the score). But it has its own sweaty, big-city flavor, a pungent New York Story, and a prototype of many noirish delights yet to come.
Released in the late '50s when paranoia about thermonuclear
annihilation was running rampant through America, Hell's Five Hours
looks not at Communist operators but at a disturbed individual with
access to one installation of the nation's military-industrial complex.
It's set at night, in cozy Meritville, a little town whose chief
employer is a huge and ominous rocket-fuel plant (in an expressionist
touch, it registers as a looming bank of lights in the dark distance).
When a disgruntled worker (Vic Morrow) gets fired, he straps dynamite around his chest activated by a mercury-switch detonator if he topples over (from a rifle shot, say), the bomb goes off anyway. (It's Morrow's own appropriation of the Doomsday Machine.) His goal (which "voices" told him to accomplish) is nothing less than igniting a catastrophic explosion that will flatten the town and unleash clouds of deadly cyanide gas.
When his first attempt to break into the plant undetected goes awry, Morrow slinging a corn-pone drawl patterned after the late James Dean realizes that he'll need some unwilling accomplices. So he turns up at the house of the plant's chief engineer (Stephen McNally), abducting his wife (Colleen Gray) and son. He then tears back to the plant, with Gray his hostage.
The only movie ever made by Jack L. Copeland (who wrote, produced and directed), Hell's Five Hours is little more than a prolonged standoff between Morrow and McNally's forces, but it abounds with deft touches. Those that aren't so deft leave clues as to how society during the second Eisenhower administration was portrayed on contemporary film. (Atop one of the massive fuel tanks, which supposedly has a weak roof, Morrow orders Gray to test its strength by walking across it; so she does, in the same pair of high heels she had been wearing, late in the evening, at home.) With its premise a deranged terrorist stalking a sleepy, complacent hamlet in dead of night, with plans to kindle Armageddon, Hell's Five Hours stands as an uneasy preview of events that would occur years later: Three Mile Island, Bhopal, even 9/11. In 1958, it may have been received as alarmist; today, we, alas, know better.
The only X-rated movie ever to nab the Academy Award for best picture,
Midnight Cowboy plays like a druggy, grind-house remake of 1942's The
Big Street, a Damon Runyon vehicle in which endearing simpleton Henry
Fonda pushes wheelchair-bound witch Lucille Ball from the cold streets
of Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel and all the way to balmy
Florida, where she dies.
The Fonda character is taken by Jon Voight as Joe Buck, a six-foot slab of blond beefcake out of Texas (where a dimly referenced past seems to include a history of sexual abuse by a grandmother plus a homosexual gang rape). He rides the Big Dog to New York, where he hopes to cut a wide swath as a swain to wealthy women. Instead, he crosses paths with a "crippled" street-smart street person, played by Dustin Hoffmann as Rico ("Ratzo") Rizzo the Ball part. And the only emotional thrust in the movie lies in their sexless, antagonistic romance (and the heat kindled by its two stars offscreen, two New York actors on the make as single-mindedly as the characters they portray).
Other than that, the movie's off-puttingly chilly, almost repellently misanthropic. Director John Schlesinger turns an avid eye on the grotesques and misfits and just plain wretched of the earth who seem to reach critical mass in a metropolis, but shows scant pity for them they're just dress extras for his soulless carnival. He enlists a whole ladies' auxiliary of over-made-up old Janes gawking at the goings-on, as though it weren't the director himself doing all the gawking.
In scene after scene, shot after shot, he opts for the cheapest gimmick, squelching any hint of complexity in his vast cast of supporting players. John McGiver, for example, may well be a pitiful old queen who got religion once he could no longer score tricks, but the pulsating plastic Jesus behind the bathroom door of his seedy, SRO hotel lingers as a spiteful, unwarranted detail. Just as unconvincingly unworthily staged are Buck's encounters with over-the-hill rich roundheels Sylvia Miles (where she out-hustles the hustler out of 20 bucks), scared-stiff schoolboy Bob Balaban (in the balcony and bathroom of a 42nd Street sex-and-cinema palace), and mama's-boy oldster Barnard Hughes (who gets a telephone receiver crammed into his dentureless mouth instead of what he hoped and paid for).
Schlesinger was good with actors, and was in the vanguard in pushing for edgy material particularly about homosexuality long before it became reasonably mainstream (he was gay himself and open about it in a Hollywood which preferred circumspection, i.e. the closet). Though it may be unchivalrous to speak ill of the recently departed, he was an uneven, almost mediocre director. His work suffered either from suffocatingly stately and prim taste (Far From The Madding Crowd) or catastrophic lapses of it (Day of The Locust). If he made one movie that approaches a masterwork, it's not Midnight Cowboy, it's Sunday, Bloody Sunday. And even there he can't take a lion's share of the credit, which belongs to actors Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, and most luminously to the writer of its unforgettable script, Penelope Gilliatt.
As Jean Valjean had his implacable persecutor in Inspector Javert, so
Barry Sullivan finds his in Charles McGraw. The setting, however, is
not Europe's great capital Paris but Los Angeles, that post-war
cynosure of middle-class dreams where orange groves and jobs in the
aerospace industry beckon.
Working contentedly at his wicket in a staid savings-and-loan office, Sullivan has the misfortune to be on duty during a robbery. It's not hoodlums in masks waving guns, but a visit by a bevy of bank examiners come to check that everything's on the up-and-up. Trouble is, there's one more of them than there ought rightly to be, and while a platinumed moll (Mary Beth Hughes) diverts Sullivan, the phony inspector (Don Beddoes) coolly lifts $49,900 from the till. Counting his cash over and over, Sullivan can't believe that he's so much short. So instead of reporting the shortfall, he goes home.
Home is the cozy little bungalow he shares with wife Dorothy Malone, who can't believe that her straight-arrow of a husband didn't report it, either. Promptly on Monday morning he does so, and all seems to looking good until the bank's bonding company is informed. Though most of the staff come to think Sullivan's telling the truth, one of them, McGraw (an ex-cop who "resigned" from the force) issues a no-appeal "guilty" verdict and makes it his private and personal mission to hound Sullivan 'till he fesses up. Fired from job after menial job thanks to McGraw's vendetta, forced to sell the bungalow and relocate to a cramped apartment, Sullivan finally realizes it's up to him to clear his own name....
Loophole's an unusual movie in that its all but exclusive focus is on the unjust persecution of a plainly innocent man (in this sense foreshadowing Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man by a couple of years). It's tense and economical, if Beddoes and Sullivan do pass one another like ships in the night rather too often, in scenes closer in spirit to farce than suspense (and if the action-packed ending leaves a loose end or two). But the dark star of Loophole is McGraw, gleefully playing as despicable a character as he ever played in the noir cycle and that's saying something.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There were still a few surprises to come in the noir cycle (Kiss Me
Deadly, The Big Combo, The Killing, Touch of Evil), but by 1954 just
about every theme and plot point had already been used and recycled.
Still, Pushover has its own distinctive cachet. Visually, it's a
gloomy, almost Stygian piece of film, harking back to the lowest-budget
releases of 1946 and 1947 like Fall Guy or The Guilty. And there's a
mood of furtiveness of voyeurism that remains arresting.
For openers, we witness a bank robbery where deaths result, but the mastermind (Paul Richards) eludes the law. Next, we watch Kim Novak (in her movie debut) exiting a cinema where It Should Happen to You and The Nebraskan constitute the double bill. Deftly, she circumvents an opened ladder, but still her car won't start. Luckily Fred MacMurray happens by to proffer his assistance. Soon they're enjoying cocktails in a cozy bar and later at his place ("Suprise me," she tells him) while waiting for her auto to be delivered from an all-night shop.
Neither the pick-up nor the malfunction underneath the hood was, however, quite a matter of chance. MacMurray's a police detective, and Novak is Richards' moll. No fool she, Novak picks up on the truth but trumps his duplicity with her own: They can kill Richards and vamoose with the loot from the bank job. MacMurray, reprising the not-so-bright-as-he-thinks ladies' man from Double Indemnity, falls for the bait....
Pushover revels in its claustrophobia. Almost all the action takes place, at night, in the U-shaped apartment building where Novak lives. Across the way, the law stakes out a dark and abandoned suite where they spy on Novak through binoculars and monitor her phone calls. Another unwilling beneficiary of their surveillance, certainly without benefit of legal documents allowing it, is nurse Dorothy Malone, who's Novak's next-door neighbor and whose quest for more ice during a late-night party becomes a crucial juncture in the plot.
The well-laid plans that MacMurray and Novak follow meet, inevitably, some snags, as a result of which one of his colleagues, an honest if alcoholic cop (Allen Nourse) looking forward to his pension check, gets not-so-accidentally killed. But MacMurray, his options folding one by one, slogs along, desperately trying to play both sides of his duplicitous game....
Derivative it may be (corrupt cop, duplicitous blonde), but Pushover exemplifies the swift, hard-edged and unsentimental turn that film noir had taken during the Eisenhower Administration; it's still one of the better titles from the dwindling days of the cycle.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet was one of the clutch of American
movies finally released in France after World War II that led Nino
Frank to coin the phrase "film noir." (And the world hasn't been quite
the same ever since.) The term was in startled reaction to the
darkened, fatalistic look and sensibility that had crept into America's
perpetually sunny cinema. And while less than a perfect recension of
Raymond Chandler's more discursive and ruminative novel Farewell, My
Lovely, (which had been filmed if butchered the year before, as The
Falcon Takes Over), the movie remains, at more than 60 years, a
hellishly entertaining thriller and one of the more emblematic titles
of the noir cycle which it helped to inaugurate.
Picking up where the (just) pre-war The Maltese Falcon left off, Murder, My Sweet takes us down those mean streets of Los Angeles that were to become, immortally, Chandler's milieu. As opposed to Dashiell Hammett's cynical, hard-as-asphalt gumshoe Sam Spade (the role, along with his Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra of the same year, that made Humphrey Bogart a big star), Chandler's Philip Marlowe was a more sullen, complicated and emotionally involved private eye; while Hammett told Spade's adventures in the third person, Chandler let Marlowe's unfurl, tellingly, in the first he's plainly the major character in his stories. And in Dick Powell, reborn from '30s light leading man into rough-stubbled tough guy, Marlowe finds an ideal embodiment: Testy, reluctant and often befuddled, Powell intuitively gauges and portrays Marlowe's range and personality more convincingly than his rivals Bogart (in The Big Sleep) or the various Montgomerys (Robert and George, in The Lady in the Lake or The Brasher Doubloon, respectively) came close to doing.
Murder, My Sweet gets narrated almost entirely in flashback. We open in a police station where Marlowe, his eyes bandaged owing to gunpowder burns, undergoes a grilling about a bloodbath. But soon we're back in Marlowe's office at the beginning, where his creep-in client Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) looms up spectrally, reflected in a night-darkened window (the responsive photography is by Harry Wild, whose work would dignify many fine films from The Magnificent Ambersons to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Next, we travel out the window through a neon-lit nightscape to the faded allure of Florian's Bar, in pursuit of Malloy's old squeeze Velma Valento, who has seemingly vanished from the crust of the earth while he spent eight years in stir. A lot changes in eight years, including Florian's, no longer a night spot with a stage but a hard-hat bar. Nobody there claims to have heard of this Velma, but Mazurki trashes the joint anyway.
With the help of a phone book, which obliging lists (as "wid Mike") the former proprietor's wife, Marlowe pays a visit, bottle of top-shelf booze in hand, to Jesse Florian, a blowsy old streel played to the hilt by Esther Howard (whose face looks like "a bucket of mud"). Ostensibly (and habitually) drunk, she has enough wits about her to steer Marlowe wrong about the whereabouts of the elusive Velma and to place an ominous phone-call at his parting.
With the introduction of what seems to be a sub-plot, Murder, My Sweet pays belated homage to its predecessor. A dandified client (Douglas Walton) plays the Joel Cairo role from The Maltese Falcon ("He smells real...nice," the elevator boy tips off Marlowe). It's a story about a rendezvous to score back some stolen jade, and he wants Marlowe to serve as bodyguard; Marlowe ends up sapped, and his client ends up dead.
Feeling he's failed however doubtful a client, Marlowe follows the trail of the purloined jade. His quest leads him to monied Brentwood and the many-acred manse of Judge Grayle, an old eminence equipped with a wife decades his junior (Claire Trevor). When His Honor, in need of an emergency nap, departs, his wife continues to entertain Marlowe ("Let's dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?" It's less a question than an invitation).
From then on, it's a trip up and down the many interlocking strata of Los Angeles society, from Grayle's daughter (and Trevor's stepdaughter) Anne Shirley (in her last role), to quack psychic Otto Kreuger, who operates a sinister sanitarium on non-existent Descanso Street. It's a trip into a shadow world where furtive connections, made or broken years ago, come unwillingly into the light. But, as a man true to his chivalric code, Marlowe persists, even when it leads him, at least three times, into the "dark pool" of unconsciousness (the phantasmagorical sequences owe a debt to the "guilty" nightmare in Boris Ingster's Stranger on the Third Floor). Ultimately, his persistence leads him to lock horns, if not quite lips, with the most unregenerate of femmes fatales....
Murder, My Sweet's a bit too short to do full justice to Chandler's rich web of duplicity and dead ends. But it stays closer to the author's vision, and his protagonist's code, than the most popular version of his work, The Big Sleep, where Bogart played the most Hollywoodized of the Marlowes. Here, Powell hews close to Marlowe's ambivalence, even squeamishness, about the messes he's paid to clean up. And Chandler's almost puritanical distaste for the matters he chose to write about surfaces, most notably in Shirley's tirade near the end (she had started out talking about why she hates men, but expertly shifts gears): "I hate their women, too. Especially their big-league blondes, beautiful, expensive babes who know what they've got...but inside, blue steel cold." At least one of those blondes started out as a redhead, singing at Nick Florian's bar....
Murder, My Sweet revivified the careers of its two stars, Powell and Trevor. And it helped prime the stalled pump of the noir cycle, which would roll along for another 15 years or so. And, as one of its best achievements, it ages well, even into a new millennium.
Trying to pass off Joan Crawford, then heading toward her mid-'40s, as
a plausible nautch-dancer in the side-show of an itinerant carnival
proves a misstep from which Michael Curtiz' Flamingo Road barely
recovers. But, once the layers of accrued campiness that cling to it
are peeled back (and once Crawford discards her Salome-like veils), the
movie, far-fetched as it is, generates some interest.
Owing to unpaid bills or some such, the traveling show, in which Crawford was a steamy if not entirely fresh attraction, blows town. Sheriff's deputy Zachary Scott, sent across the tracks to make sure the whole unsavory business has packed up, finds only Crawford, listening to her radio in a mildewed tent. Sparks are struck; he invites her back to town for the blue-plate special in the local beanery and finagles a job for her there as a waitress.
His superior, corrupt sheriff Sydney Greenstreet, sniffs out the burgeoning romance and vows to quash it; he has plans to run Scott for the senate of their anonymous Gulf state (its capital is Olympic City and its capitol a lovingly detailed piece of scenery painting), prerequisite to which is a proper marriage to a bona-fide local girl. Scott glumly acquiesces to the plan, drowning his doubts in drink ("I crawled into a bottle and can't get out"), while Greenstreet frames Crawford on a morals charge and runs her out of town.
New to the mix is David Brian, boss of the state political machine, whose eye is caught by Crawford (now back in town working in the obligatory "roadhouse" operated by Gladys George). He has a whopper of a hangover ("A party's like insurance the older you are, the more it costs," he says), which Crawford assuages with an eye-opening whiskey sour followed by a home-cooked breakfast. Never underestimate the power of a well-scrambled egg. Next thing, they're married and living in a mansion on high-toned Flamingo Road (complete with a housemaid with the voice and the brain of a parakeet, as in the earlier Curtiz/Crawford Mildred Pierce, except that this time she's not Butterfly McQueen and is, amazingly for the era, white). But Greenstreet starts pulling even filthier strings than Brian for once, a passably good egg can countenance. Whereupon, after a drastic development involving the besotted Scott, Crawford slips a handgun into her clutch-bag and pays Greenstreet an amicable visit....
With at least two sensational movies behind him (Casablanca and Mildred Pierce), and one ahead of him (The Unsuspected), Curtiz can be forgiven for Flamingo Road. He brings it some verve, but its identity as yet another of Crawford's rags-to-riches vehicles gets the better of him. While his star supplies some startlingly naturalistic acting (and while the uncharacteristically clean-shaven Scott and the characteristically portly Greenstreet are dependably professional), Flamingo Road has fallen, rather unarguably, into the disreputable if transfixing gulch called camp. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Picturesque Niagara Falls, the honeymoon capital of the world, comes in
two pieces: The American and the Canadian. Recent but not fresh
newlyweds Jean Peters and Max Showalter (here, as Casey Adams) cross
the border into Niagara Falls, Ontario on a delayed trip he won from
his job. His prize-winning promotion was a turkey stuffed with shredded
wheat, so small wonder he's more enthralled by the sight of the
cereal's flagship factory across the river back in the states than in
the majesty of the great, roaring cataracts.
But the cabin the belated honeymooners had reserved hasn't yet been emptied of Marilyn Monroe and her "unwell," older husband Joseph Cotten. Obligingly, Peters and Showalter take another one, with a less spectacular view. But later that evening, Monroe and Cotten put on a spectacle of marital discord right in the middle of the motor court that trumps the sights of both the cereal plant and even of the falls. Unwillingly, Peters and Showalter become drawn into an eddy as lethal as any out in the whirling rapids themselves especially once Peters espies, in the Cave of the Winds, Monroe in a clinch with a hunk who decidedly is not Cotten. From then on, Niagara turns into cat-and-mouse game of adultery and murder....
Had Hathaway kept his arc of tension more taut, Niagara might have been extraordinary. But the buffoonish Showalter is miscast, lending an untoward antic note, one amplified by the quite unnecessary arrival of his boss, complete with wife in tow (Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle). Documentary and promotional material intrudes as well. Barely a tourist-trap goes neglected, from the Maid of the Mist to the carillon in the bell tower to the Cave of the Winds. And so Niagara joins that subset of mid-1950s movies that, with the democratization of travel and the pervasiveness of Technicolor photography, were in part turned into big and glamorous postcards boosting tourism to the locales where they were filmed (Dangerous Mission and I Died A Thousand Times come to mind).
Deployed as a ditzy sexpot, in both walk-ons and starring roles, throughout most of her (brief) career, Monroe had another, possibly more powerful side. Though her husband (Joseph Cotten) is supposedly the mentally unbalanced half of the couple, Marilyn Monroe comes across as disturbingly dangerously unstable. It's the same kind of riveting unbalance that she projected the year before in Don't Bother To Knock, potent and unpredictable. And without her coloring outside the lines of how her character was sketched the conventionally duplicitous younger wife Henry Hathaway's Niagara wouldn't be half so absorbing. And in fact when she leaves the screen for good, and when the movie resorts to the high-adventure peril of approaching the brink of the falls, most of our interest has already left, as well.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Along with Jim Thompson, David Goodis stood in that second tier of
hard-boiled writers whose work would generate several titles in the
noir cycle and its aftermath: The Unfaithful, Nightfall, The Burglar,
Street of No Return, and Dark Passage. In this last, Delmer Daves wrote
the passably tight script (a few holes remain undarned), which he then
directed, resulting in one of the more memorable San Francisco noirs.
We open on an oil barrel teetering around on the back of a truck. A pair of hands on the rim (from within) indicate that its occupant is trying to dislodge his container from its berth, which he does, as well he might, as he's an escapee from San Quentin, in for murdering his wife three years ago. We know from the iconic voice, with its wisp of an impediment, that it's Humphrey Bogart, but we don't get a glimpse of him for quite a while. Fired up by the dubious "subjective camera" technique of the Robert Montgomery's recently released The Lady in the Lake, Daves, too, casts the camera as his main character's eyes. Luckily, he's inconsistent in using this conceit, and once Bogart gets a face job, that's the end of it, and not a second too soon.
After hitching a ride with too inquisitive a driver (Clifton Young), whom he pummels into silence, Bogart is picked up by Lauren Bacall, who seems to know all about him and whisks him back to her moderne two-floor apartment in the city (the lighted elevator glides up and down a glass-brick column; the building, by the way, still stands). Bacall took an interest in his case since her own father was wrongly executed for murder (in the newspaper clipping she keeps, Daves' photograph does service for Dad). What's more, she travels in the same ritzy circles as did Bogart and his defunct wife, and do viperish Agnes Moorehead and coveted man-about-the-town Bruce Bennett.
Bacall sequesters Bogart as long as she can in her more than comfortable digs, what with a well-stocked liquor cabinet, home-cooked dinners by candlelight and Jo Stafford styling torchy numbers from the radio. But comes the time when Bogart must exchange his mug for a less recognizable one, and the movie must go down the mean streets of film noir. Young's distinctive convertible jalopy parked outside is the first clue that's something's amiss, but Bogart takes heart from good-hearted cabbie Tom D'Andrea, who not only drives him to the spartan rooms of his best friend, a jazz trumpeter (Rory Mallinson), but who just happens to know an unlicensed sawbones who specializes in $200 plastic surgeries. Bogart plans to stay with Mallinson for his week of recuperation, but finds him dead, bludgeoned with his own trumpet. Bandaged up like The Invisible Man, he makes his way back to Bacall's layout, determined to smoke out his wife's killer....
Despite jumping rather impulsively from one plot strand to the next, Dark Passage keeps up a not-so-slack pulse of tension. Daves works up a few evocative and suggestive sequences. Houseley Stevenson delivers toothsome little character study (sinister? Benevolent?) of the back-alley surgeon, and when Bogart strikes out on his own, wanting little more than eggs-over-easy at a diner, he's spotted by a police detective who comes on like a Gestapo agent it's a neat way of expressing the vulnerability that Bogart thinks even his new visage can't disguise.
Dark Passage is far from flawless. In their third major screen pairing (Two Guys From Milwaukee is best overlooked), off-screen couple Bogart and Bacall fail to generate the playful erotic spark that Howard Hawks coaxed out of them in To Have And Have Not and The Big Sleep; granted, Dark Passage is plenty shy of playfulness. Worse, the various strands of the story often come across as episodic, unconnected; Daves (or Goodis) doesn't weave the tenuous but tough web of murky connections that a Raymond Chandler could. Still, as one of Daves' better efforts, it still holds up and it's fascinating to watch that elevator slide up and down its crystal sheath.
The coastal Florida town in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat brings to mind
remote colonial outposts in movies like The Letter (nearby Miami, here,
seems as far away as London). A sweltering spell of weather settles
down for a long roost, and the distant glow of an old hotel a relic
of the peninsula's past as an exotic getaway for northerners with money
lights the opening scene; it's been torched for the insurance, an
occurrence so common as to warrant little comment.
It's a town where William Hurt, a lawyer who's neither very bright nor very scrupulous, ekes out a modest existence that seems to suit him; he can dine at the best restaurant in town once a month so long as he doesn't order an appetizer. The rest of his time he spends lazily with bourbon or beer or in bed with whoever obliges him.
Then he meets up with Kathleen Turner, who hangs around cocktail lounges when her wheeler-dealer husband (Richard Crenna) is out of town, which is a lot. After the ritual game of cat-and-mouse, Turner and Hurt kindle a torrid romance, despite the enervating heat that keeps everything else limp as dishrags. Soon, the pillow talk works around to murder....
Of course, Body Heat is a latter-day version of the story for which Double Indemnity serves as archetype: Duplicitous woman seduces lust-addled stud into killing rich older husband, then leaves him to twist slowly, slowly in the wind. There's not even enough wind to stir the chimes that festoon the porch off Turner's bedroom -- can't the rich old cuckold spring for air conditioning? Hurt and Turner are reduced to emptying the refrigerator's ice tray into the post-coital bath they share -- but Hurt's left twisting nonetheless, in one of the better updates of this ageless tale.
In her movie debut, Turner makes her deepest impression with her best asset, that dimple-Haig voice of hers, all silk and smoke (but neither she nor Kasdan, who also wrote the script, quite justify her character's long and intricate back-story of ruthless scheming). With his long, lithe college-boy's build and wife-swapper's mustache left over from the '70s, Hurt embodies the self-satisfied patsy whose zipper leads him through life. Crenna (who played this Walter Neff role in the 1973 TV remake of Double Indemnity) now takes on the role of the disposable husband, the victim (or rather, the first victim).
But it's two smaller parts that give the movie a special shine. Mickey Rourke, as the local arsonist whom Hurt once helped out of a jam, ups the voltage in his two scenes, warning the heedless Hurt, then warning him again when it's all but too late. And, as Hurt's amiable adversary in the town's tiny legal circle, Ted Danson proves surprisingly spry and intuitive an actor (and he contributes a lovely little idyll, doing a soft-shoe routine under a street lamp on a pier). There's a twist or two too many in Body Heat -- it's a bit gimmicky -- but, after watching it, you feel as though you, too, should be stripping off your clothes, if only to wring them out.
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