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Kiss of Death (1947)
Another strong Mature (Victor that is) film...
The bulk of Kiss of Death is a modest, based-on-a-true-story tale of crime and woe. There's nothing spectacular about Nick or his circumstances, and nothing particularly compelling about his turn as a stool pigeon. Kiss of Death is almost romantic-comedy-like in its execution: Man meets crime, man leaves crime, man hooks up with crime again. Crisis, resolution. Yet out of the nondescript foundation emerge a few noteworthy aspects.
The first and most noticeable is the realistic look of the film. Director Henry Hathaway goes straight to the source, shooting scenes on their actual locations. This is noticeable because the opening credits tell you so; how quaint to throw a little self-promotion right there in the intro! Fortunately, this hokiness doesn't detract from some truly beautiful camera-work achieved by cinematographer Norbert Brodine. New York has a distinct look, and Brodine makes the most of it. Establishing shots of lights and skyscrapers in silhouette lead into a New York in full seasonal glory, with Christmas shoppers amok in the streets. From posh nightclubs to gritty prisons, Hathaway and Brodine milk as much texture from the locations as possible.
The self-promotional focus on cinematography quietly gives way to Victor Mature's personable portrayal of Nick. Though he worked through six decades, Mature was never a big name or recognized star. Indeed, his relative lack of star quality allows him to succeed in this modest, intimate tale culled from the real life of a small time hood. Mature doesn't steal the show by any means, but he capably anchors it and gives Nick some plausibility and a sympathetic quality. When Coleen Gray arrives on the scene as Nick's former nanny, we can somehow buy their slapdash romantic entanglement. Gray is also capable in her role, sweet but not saccharine, petite but with a hint of spark. Her perkiness doesn't grate, and there seems to be more to her than just a pretty face and her status as Nick's love interest. She has the intriguing "I want to know more about this woman" vibe that characterized Judy Garland's stardom, though Gray would never reach those levels of fame.
Mature may not steal the show, but Richard Widmark does. Like Coleen Gray, Widmark made his debut in Kiss of Death. Unlike Gray's, his performance left an indelible mark on cinema and made Widmark a household name overnight. Tommy Udo is such a ruthless, depraved character, and his manner crawls under your skin so thoroughly, that Widmark is impossible to ignore. His characterization could so easily have spasmed across the line into caricature, or become smarmy or irritating. But Udo's manic, staccato laugh just skirts that edge, and his bitterly cold eyes and palpable menace invigorate later scenes. The unnecessary murder he commits on screen is shocking; it isn't hard to see why Joe Pesci would evoke shades of Tommy Udo in Goodfellas. In fact, Widmark's Oscar-nominated turn as Udo would inspire countless nods from subsequent maniacal mobsters.
These characters spice up an otherwise small, vague tale. Kiss of Death morphs though a series of focus shifts. It seems like a hardboiled crime saga at times, a political game at others, even a tale of family values and romance. It ends up in a dramatic knot of danger and redemption. Its inability to stick with one theme gives Kiss of Death a wishy-washy, gutless quality. But touches of depth, particularly the way Eleazar Lipsky's script makes the end of the film tense and involving instead of anticlimactic, keep the otherwise straightforward story fresh.
The tale is also enhanced by a couple of pure noir moments. The most obvious is Nick's nervous vigil when he knows Udo is coming for him. A car's headlights slice through the dark house and set off a game of hide-and-seek in the shadows. The pressure mounts, and you just know that someone is bound to die. I don't know how film noir can support such ludicrous amounts of shadow, but it does so to powerful effect. Noir jumps back onto the front burner when Nick takes matters into his own hands at the end of the film. A showdown with Udo over a restaurant table is fraught with peril and tension; mostly because of Widmark's scintillating menace, but partially because of the composition and the score.
A superb commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver walks us through the nuances of the film without much pause or filler. The pair has an impressive understanding of film noir, and they're able to parlay that knowledge into an engaging commentary. Though I don't fault most of their specific points, Ursini and Alain Silver hold the film in higher esteem than I do. This is good for noir fans because the commentators highlight the positives in each shot, performance, and theme.
Brute Force (1947)
Very Fine Noir...
Jules Dassin ("Rififi"/"Naked City") directs this hard-hitting but outdated crime drama concerned about prison conditions. Its social commentary seems more like a mixture of bleeding heart liberal talk and Hollywood's melodramatic interpretation about prison life than a true questioning of the prison system, though its concerns for prisoners' rights might at the time have seemed relevant-- modern society is now concerned with the rising crime rate and questioning how to get tougher with the inmates. Brute Force is based on a story by Robert Patterson; the screenplay is by Richard Brooks.
Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) is a sadist on a power trip, clubbing prisoners for information to the strains of Wagner. He takes pleasure in torturing prisoners and in having a network of stoolies, suggesting that society commends his actions to get order by any means possible. Munsey's ambition is to become warden, replacing the inept old-timer Barnes. The politician prison big boss McCollum warns that if there's any more trouble from the prisoners he will replace the warden, which prompts Munsey to secretly work against the warden.
Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is a prison leader who was sent to solitary because a shiv was planted on him by a stoolie named Wilson, on orders from Muncey. When Joe gets out the inmates execute a plan to eliminate the stoolie, as the men start a diversionary fight in the machine shop and then Wilson is forced by blow-torches to his death in a large steam press.
Flashbacks of the inmates on the outside are used in an attempt to show the reason for their imprisonment and to introduce some female interest, unfortunately this ruins the fast-paced rhythm of the claustrophobic film.
Joe and his cellmates plan to escape. When the top-dog prisoner Gallagher (Charles Bickford) realizes he won't get parole, he joins in the breakout. Gallagher's men cause a diversion in the prison yard, while Joe and his men plan their escape through a mine. The breakout turns bloody, as the guards are ready for them because one of Joe's cellmates is a stoolie. The sympathetic Dr. Walters (Art Smith), the frustrated alcoholic prison doctor, says after the bloodbath "Nobody ever escapes." Which is the allegorical message the film draws, comparing the brutality of war to the prison. Munsey is viewed as a fascist, who has the support of the top prison officials. The inmates are seen as helpless captives, subject to the whims of how Munsey interprets the law. This prison film speaks for all such prisons and the sense of hopelessness that prevails behind bars. It is only the violent actions that seem to give the men some hope to be free again. The point hammered home is that the prison system reflects the values of society, as Dassin castigates society for creating and then turning a blind eye toward the brutality and insensitivity of a prison system that offers no chance for rehabilitation.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
his Gun For Hire has been described as 'one of the most important early films noir', and one that 'helps to establish a number of conventions of the genre'. (1) The film's enduring significance lies in its influence on a particular subset of classic and post-classic noir films featuring the figure of the lone assassin. Directed by Frank Tuttle, himself something of a Paramount Studios gun for hire, the film's exploration of the last days of a solitary, embittered hit-man reverberates through everything from Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (France, 1968) to more recent meditations on the form - Luc Besson's The Professional (USA, 1994) and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog (USA, 1999).
Scriptwriters Albert Matz and W.R.Burnett adapted Graham Greene's A Gun For Sale (1936) to the American screen, transposing the original story of a London hit-man to the emblematic noir territory of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Greene's Phillip Raven is 'dark and thin and made for destruction...a screwed-up figure' with a 'repulsive' hare-lip, who is contracted by a wealthy industrialist to kill a socialist minister. (2) In the Paramount scenario, Alan Ladd plays the considerably less disfigured Raven, hired to dispense with a blackmailing industrial chemist in the employ of chemical tycoon, Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall).
Matz and Burnett embellished Greene's left-leaning political thriller with some definitively American elements, not the least of which was the incorporation of prevailing American propagandist sentiments. Mid-shooting schedule, this inter-war production was thus able to graft an overt anti-Japanese discourse onto Greene's narrative of political intrigue. Tellingly, the American script also transforms Greene's wealthy industrialist Sir Marcus into a monstrous figure of capitalist corruption. Brewster ('King Chlorine'), a desiccated, wheelchair-bound tyrant, has been read as a thinly veiled portrait of Henry Ford. (3) On a more minor note, Matz and Burnett give Raven's brutal existence a new and thoroughly contemporary Freudian motivation - he kills to avenge his own abuse at the hands of a unforgiving aunt.
This Gun for Hire unfolds with workmanlike efficiency. Raven is established as a reprehensible killer. His Spartan way of life and implacable approach to the business of killing are amusingly contrasted with effete executive and nightclub owner Willard Gates (Laird Cregar). Gates' corpulent figure and abhorrence of violence make him an unlikely middle man in the criminal hierarchy that extends from Raven to Brewster. Gates' decadent tastes ('leg shows' and chocolate mints!) and affected manner are played up by Cregar with camp relish. His craven, thuggish sidekick Tommy completes the vaudevillian effect.
Where Raven's name signifies his dark, predatory attributes, his nemesis Lieutenant Michael Crane (Robert Preston) bears an appropriately innocuous avian-inspired moniker. Crane's cop is a colourless character whose half-hearted pursuit of Raven and dreary attempts at romance only serve to foreground the genuine frisson developing between his quarry and his girl. Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is a thoroughly overdetermined femme fatale who is by turns, Crane's devoted fiancée, a nightclub singer and employee of Gates, a US secret agent and Raven's accomplice and 'friend'. She and Raven become increasingly entangled in the Nitro Chemicals political and criminal racket. They share a risqué night together as 'strangers on a train' and establish a rapport on the run that arguably counteracts the film's final, unconvincing and over-emphatic clinch between Graham and Crane.
True to the spirit of the dangerously seductive noir femme, Graham ultimately betrays all the men she comes in contact withall of course in the service of the collective good of the country. Given that her character is forced to bear the considerable weight of the script's heavy-handed patriotism, Lake's performance has historically been damned with faint praise. She is nevertheless, a luminous presence in the film.
If the protagonists in This Gun For Hire are typical of noir, Tuttle takes his time consolidating the film's formal credentials. Early scenes are characterised by a certain prosaic quality. The mise en scène is decidedly non-noirish, with fussy interiors and indifferent, low-contrast lighting. Action consistently takes place in daylight and locations are seemingly benign Raven's hotel, a cosy cafe, the busy street. But as the narrative unfolds and Raven becomes embroiled in the unforeseen political repercussions of the 'hit', the lighting regimes and locations shift accordingly. Raven becomes hunted rather than hunter and increasingly inhabits the seedy nightclubs, train stations and oppressive urban locations that constitute the natural habitat of the beleaguered noir protagonist.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The black bird of happiness...
Whether The Maltese Falcon is the first Film Noir or not is open to debate, but it's easy to see why it is generally given the honor. All the parts are there: The hard-boiled story by Dashiell Hammett, the anti-hero detective, the collection of distinctive criminals, the less than honorable police, the femme fatale, the mystery that leads to greater mystery, the deep shadows, the unusual camera anglesparticularly from the floor shooting upthe witty dialog, and the dark, uncompromising ending. Add in that it is a truly great film, and it's an excellent place to mark the beginning of a genre.
The black bird of the title is the prize the story revolves aroundbut this is no Macguffin, as Hichcock labeled the item that everyone wants but is of no real importance. The uranium dust in Notorious is the perfect example of a McGuffinif it had been a powerful poison or plans for putting together a fourth Reich, the story wouldn't have changed; all that mattered in that film was that there was something the bad-guys shouldn't have. But any change to the falcon (as was done in the 1936 version, called Satan Met a Lady, where the bird was replaced by a horn) would change the film. The black bird is more than just a prize. It is, as Spade says, the stuff that dreams are made of. It is mythic. It elevates the quest of the characters from just a desire for cash to something grander. It's something just a bit beyond reality. And that's what good Noir is. The Noir world is much like ours, except the dialog is wittier, the girls are prettier, the shadows are deeper, the sins are darker, and the prize, be it treasure or the truth of human nature, is more magnificent. You don't get more magnificent than the Maltese falcon.
Film Noir (literally 'black film') was a term created by French film scribes who noticed how 'dark', downbeat and black the textures and themes of many American crime and detective movies finally released in France following the WWII. (Films they hadn't been able to see under German occupation.) These B&W flicks initially came into vogue in the '40s, became more popular in the post-war era (especially as B-films, played behind more conventional cinema from Hollywood) and lasted up until the classic "Golden Age" to about 1960 -- or maybe 1958 -- as "Touch of Evil" is usually cited (by film professors) as the end of the classic noir period.
It's interesting to note that film noir is not a genre, but rather a mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film. This tone can be blended with other genre's to form a most satisfying effect (most recently, the film "Brick" exploited noir conventions in High School setting!).
Caper films, with its intricate plotting and criminal-characters existing on the periphery of society are some of the most significant examples of famous noir works. Most feature a "tone of pessimism, and darkness" and mainly share the form's visual style. But their main focus usually lies in the way they detail the strategies of the crime, that typically end up in fatal outcome, suggesting that there is a moral order to the universe, and that bad guys should not succeed.
Crime Capers fall into several categories. In recent times, we've seen the jazzy stuff produced by Guy Richie and Soderbergh. In the 70s, we saw the existential masterpieces by Melville. In the eighties, we've seen caper films that were really romantic comedies at heart. Indeed, the fusion of capers has made its way into many a sub-categories heading.
The same can be probably said for thrillers, although less fusions exist with classic thrillers. This category usually sticks to increasingly tense dramatic situation and if anything, veers into the realm of action films. Note that both "Fatal Attraction and "Basic Instinct" feature action set pieces that could easily be cut into a Bruckheimer film.
JTTEOTN is not a caper film, a thriller, an actioner or even a straight noir -- its all those things, and none of them.
"Journey to the End of the Night" suffers (wrongly) from being a not "instantly categorizable" work (not in the marketing sense, but in the processing sense; i.e, how our brains orient to story: who am I supposed to root for? Brendan Fraser? No. Scott Glenn? No. Mos Def, yes, finally, but not wholeheartedly, because even the saintly Wemba is a drug runner who undertakes his mission solely out of greed). Its these types of transgressions that play against the contemporary mores, and a viewer's desire to enjoin and identity (within the first ten minutes) with a hero. Still and all, I would argue, that it is precisely this break with convention that has such an a lasting effect on the viewer. And makes JTTEOTN a most powerful post-modern noir.
Double Indemnity (1944)
The long silent street of film noir, a street where it is always night, and where the songs are always sad. That street is usually a dingy urban alley or a dank sidestreet, but in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, it was a deceptively quiet suburban avenue. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself necessarily mean," wrote novelist Raymond Chandler, and as a screenwriter, he joined Wilder in sending one Walter Neff, insurance investigator, down the crookedest of these dead end lanes of the spirit.
The streets of Los Angeles are busier and deadlier than they were in Chandler's heyday. Yet Chandler's disquieting, existential take on the City of Angels transcends fashions in both transportation and crime. Those mean streets remain mean, and mementos of Double Indemnity can still be seen all over the city. The Hollywood Bowl where Walter and Lola Dietrichson meet; Walter's apartment at the Château Marmont; the Glendale train station where the "perfect crime" begins... And the "death house" of Double Indemnity, where Phyllis and Walter meet, plot murder, and where their strange love finally reaches its apocalypse, still stands, secluded and quiet, high in the Hollywood Hills, at 6301 Quebec Street, in Los Angeles. Exteriors were shot there, and sets were modeled after the inside of the house. The house seems to rear up in the summer twilight, remembering the night fifty years ago when a cruel woman brought her husband out to a big LaSalle sedan idling in the garage, with a killer in the back seat. The house's silent, stuccoed cloisters look gloomily down on Quebec Street, while Walter Neff's disembodied footfalls echo off the asphalt.
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Pick up Artist...
Pickup on South Street (1953), directed by movie maverick Samuel Fuller, contains a stunning opening that establishes a double complication. Subway rider Candy (Susan Peters) collides with pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark dipped in shades of Sinatra cool). She's unaware that she carries valuable microfilm; McCoy is unaware of grifting it. Both are unaware of being observed by two federal agents. Thus the grift sets in motion a degree of knowledges. Candy is doubly watched (Skip and the police) and therefore doubly naive; Skip, the overconfident petty thief, is singularly unaware, trailed by federal agents; the feds, all knowing, are ultimately helpless. They can't stop the "passing" of government secrets or the spread of communism.
Elmer's finest performance...
Few movies are more dark and more bleak than Detour. Tom Neal plays a hitchhiker who thumbs a ride with a businessman who complains about this last passenger, a wild woman who scratched him. After the driver mysteriously dies, Neal panics, throws the body into the desert and drives off. But in the world of film noir, you can never escape from your actions. In this case, he picks up a hitchhiker, a nasty-tempered red head (Ann Savage), who instantly recognizes the car. Filmed on a minuscule budget by the great B-movie director Edgar G. Ulmer, Detour is a bleak and claustrophobic thriller that plays out as a cynical, minimalist drama with touches of existentialist angst.
Edward Elmer's finest performance as an actor. I wish there were more like it.
Nightmare Alley (1947)
In the world of film noir, heroes didn't just fall, they often got their noses ground in the dirt, as with Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a small-carnival operator who gradually loses control of the carnival and begins his fall, to where we ultimately find him playing the geek in the sideshow and biting the heads off of live chickens. Based on a screenplay by Jules Furthman and photographed by Lee Garmes, Nightmare Alley is a harrowing, disturbing portrait of a man's fall to the depths of degradation, and it's all the more shocking with pretty boy Power in the lead.
After a recent rival screening in Ohio, I overheard one audience member complaining to another, "Why aren't there more films made like this in Hollywood??? If they are going to remake crap, remake great stuff too!"
Night and the City (1950)
Night and Noir...
Among the very few noirs not made in the United States, Night and the City was directed by Jules Dassin, exiled from America during the anti-communist crusades of the '40s. Working in England, he created this fatalistic tale of a small time hood, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), who bucks the crime bosses by devising a scheme of his own to get rich quick as a sports promoter, but his plans go awry and Harry Fabian takes off running, through darkened alleys and warehouses, through seedy nightclubs and cluttered backrooms. Harry runs and runs, trying to escape an inevitable, inexorable fate.
Of all the films made in the category of Noir, this film is among the very, very highest...