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Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Can this movie be taken seriously?
The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly are similar in that both movies open with a young, attractive, and mysterious young woman randomly entering the life of the main protagonist which triggers a series of events revolving around a McGuffin. But whereas The Maltese Falcon can be taken seriously, the same cannot be said for Kiss Me Deadly. Kiss Me Deadly is pure camp. In this movie, the caricature of the aggressive, pushy, anti-law, anti-hero, no-nonsense, amoral tough guy is perfected. Mike Hammer is "one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself." Ralph Meeker's performance as Hammer must be rated as one of the greatest performances in the history of film noir. Meeker sets the standard for this type of role. The film's screenwriter, A. I. Bezzerides, wrote the script for fun. Bezzerides said, "People ask me about the hidden meanings in the script, about the A-bomb, about McCarthyism, what does the poetry mean, and so on. And I can only say that I didn't think about it when I wrote it . . . I was having fun with it." The idea of a medical doctor lugging around a box containing a mysterious and dangerous thing that is "hot", or of a harried, disheveled gumshoe repeatedly screwing up, or of the same gumshoe barging into a health club and demanding to look inside some guy's locker, or of the gumshoe possessing what may be the single largest and gaudiest personal telephone answering machine in history, or of the gumshoe having a girlfriend that's part-secretary, part-confidante, part-lover and completely a whore, or of the gumshoe's best friend being an auto mechanic who looks, sounds, and acts like Jerry Colonna, or of the gumshoe driving around in expensive sports cars had to be written for laughs. It is virtually impossible to take such scenes or props seriously. If this movie has any message, it is to sit back, relax, watch it and enjoy it.
Pickup on South Street (1953)
Not a great movie, but campy entertainment.
Pickup on South Street is about a petty thief, Skip McCoy, who gets caught up in a spy ring desperately trying to recover two strips of microfilm that the thief stole. The movie is set in New York City and includes exterior location shots. The cinematography creates a somber and sinister mood, with many scenes filmed using dim light. The urban landscape is generally seedy, which corresponds with the kind of characters that populate the story. The principal character, Skip McCoy, is a cross between Slip Mahoney from The Bowery Boys and Charles Tatum, the flamboyant newspaperman, except that Skip is neither funny nor particularly bright. The idea of a petty thief and three-time loser trying to shake down a Communist spy ring stretches plausibility to the limit. Trying to appeal to his sense of patriotism is a waste of time. The character is simply too shallow to be taken seriously. All he wants is money. He is a nobody existing in a shack under a bridge, away from society. The only reason why anybody wants anything to do with him is because he has something that somebody wants, and even after he realizes that what he stole is something serious, his thinking remains incredibly myopic. Then there is Candy, the woman who falls in love with Skip. She is unbelievable. First, she falls in love with Skip, the man who victimizes her, and then tries to use her as go-between with the "Commies." Later she clobbers Skip over the head with a bottle, leaving him sprawled on the floor. Then Candy insists that she is not a Communist, even though she is a courier for a Communist spy ring, has in her possession stolen documents, and her boyfriend is a Communist. Finally, she is physically abused, not by one man, but by two, yet remains loyal to both. Given her nasty, conniving nature, she would have been more believable as someone who shakes down the spies. Regarding the boyfriend, Joey, his behavior is hysterical. A spy by necessity has to keep a low profile and maintain self-control but not in this movie. Here the spy is running around with a gun shooting people and attracting a lot of attention. Also, he seems too apolitical to be a communist. Is he really a spy? Then there is Moe, the woman informant who fronts as a street vendor selling ties. To believe that this woman, who makes Skip McCoy look mainstream, would have any information worth paying for is a stretch. At first, it seems that Moe is in the story for comic relief, but then she goes from being brash and cynical to maudlin and melodramatic, and she is not the lead character. Why should anyone care what she thinks? Moe would have been more believable as a pickpocket. Despite these anomalies, what makes the movie watchable is the terrific acting. Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter and Richard Kiley deliver strong performances. Thelma Ritter is especially impressive. The stunt doubles are impressive too. The movie too has a campy quality, especially in its exaggerated theatrics that seem to parody more serious works in the crime and spy genres, such as The Maltese Falcon in which the lead character also possesses a valuable object, or Sunset Boulevard in which the lead character also craves money. But in those movies, these characters have depth, which adds richness to the plot and makes the stories compelling works of drama. Although entertaining, Pickup on South Street does not rise up to that level.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
A tragic story as a work of art.
Sunset Boulevard is a great movie because it contains a tragic story which makes the movie a compelling work of drama. Gloria Swanson and William Holden portray complex characters, one a washed up actress and the other a failed screen writer, with personal needs that conflict. One needs love and the other one money. This simple formula provides the basis for a great movie.
We know from the start that the principal male character, Joe Gillis, is dead and that the story is a flash back. This flash back hooks the audience's attention. We know that Joe has a story to tell, one that is worth listening to because something bad happened to him, and the question now is: why? The movie explains why. Joe, by chance, gets involved with a wealthy but emotionally unstable woman, Norma, who is in a position to cater to Joe's material needs. All Norma wants in return is Joe's love, a love that Joe does not feel for Norma. Now, Joe has a conflict: stay with Norma, whom he does not love, although he loves her money, or leave Norma and go back to where he came from, which is poverty row. Either way, Joe loses. How Joe goes about trying to resolve this conflict is what drives this story. The needier Norma gets, the more frantic Joe becomes. Joe describes himself as a heel. That's because he feels guilty over the way he is treating Norma. Joe's guilt feelings show that fundamentally he is a decent guy who does not know how to extricate himself from an impossible situation. If we did not know what happens to Joe from the start, his situation would seem comical: an eccentric middle-aged woman lavishing gifts on a younger man who is too much of a wimp to say no. Joe Gillis could be played by Adam Sandler or a younger Dustin Hoffman. Indeed, The Graduate reprises the older woman-younger man motif. But unlike The Graduate, where feathers are ruffled but nobody dies, in Sunset Boulevard the story is far from amusing; it is tragic. Joe dies and Norma loses what is left of her sanity. No one wins. Norma makes a grand exit to the police and Joe makes an exit too: to the morgue. That this happens in Hollywood gives the story a sardonic twist. Norma and Joe finally achieve the notoriety that they craved, but at a price.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
Powerful movie dealing with moral themes
Ace in the Hole is about a brash, self-centered news reporter, Charles Tatum, who shamelessly exploits a tragedy to satisfy his own personal needs. He doesn't care about other people; he just cares about himself and abuses his responsibilities as a journalist to create havoc. Kirk Douglas delivers a powerful performance as Charles Tatum. Douglas succeeds in capturing Tatum's depravity. Jan Sterling also delivers a strong performance as Lorraine, the cynical yet emotionally vulnerable wife of the man trapped in the cave. Lorraine is on to Tatum. She knows that he's a con man doing a con job. Yet, this movie is not about Lorraine, it is about Tatum. Tatum drives this story. Charles Tatum is not a tragic figure. He has no redeeming qualities. He is a womanizer, a bully, a drunk and a trouble maker. Tatum is too crass, too deceitful and too violent to warrant any sympathy. He cruelly exploits the plight of a suffering man and beats up on a woman, not once, but twice. His conduct is beyond mitigation. He is not a Walter Neff, who was just doing his job, gets caught up in something and then gets manipulated into making questionable decisions. Tatum knew the rules of conduct and by his own volition deliberately violated them. He knew he was doing wrong and did it anyway. He has only himself to blame. Yet, the story is tragic, not for what it says about Tatum, who by the end of the story is revealed to be what he is, a broken down, discredited nobody, but for what it says about a society that would give credence to a creep like Tatum in the first place. Had a society that produced heroes like Sergeant York and Lou Gehrig and solemnly prayed for the safety and success of its brave soldiers on Omaha Beach become so decadent and depraved that it could gloat and laugh over the plight of a suffering man stuck in a cave? Or tolerate the idea of man viciously hitting and terrorizing a woman? Or permit a drunkard to masquerade as a savior? Or produce people willing to sell out in order to gain cheap political advantage? In this respect, this movie is a form of social commentary and by watching it, a consciousness raising experience. For those reasons alone, it qualifies as a work of art.
On second thought, Charles Tatum, the principal character in Ace in the Hole, is a tragic figure. Although he is thoroughly despicable, by his own admission he is a murderer, his pomposity and pretentiousness calls attention to our own weaknesses and imperfections as human beings. Tatum was not born being bad. At some point in his life he was innocent, spiritually pure, and happy. Then something happened to distort his personality and corrupt him. The movie does not allude to that event but it can be inferred that some trauma must have occurred to cause him to become warped. He harbors resentment against the paper in New York that fired him, but even if the firing was unjust, that trauma alone is not sufficient to explain Tatum's twisted personality. He craves power, prestige and money; his grandiosity knows no bounds; he wants to be treated like a god. These aspirations are a fool's dream and one that can only bring destruction. Tatum's strivings are an exercise in futility. He is like a puppet that is trying to pull its own strings, in the process getting the strings tangled. Throughout the story Tatum is a mess and his behavior erratic. He is attracted to Lorraine, yet beats her. He risks his life by going into the cave, but it is only for show. He is energetic and resourceful, for reasons that are self-serving. He is the kind of guy who will bail you out of a jam but only for a price; the kind of guy who will help you out then do you in; the kind of guy who will help you fix your car because he wants to steal it. Tatum could have been a hero. He could have called attention to Leo's plight not as part of a gimmick for self-promotion but because he really wanted to help save a life and really cared. He could have been a positive role model for Lorraine and Herbie, and for everyone else who admires him. But he squanders the opportunity and winds up acting the fool and being the fool. What a waste. In this respect, Charles Tatum is a tragic figure.
Son of God (2014)
The way the story should be told.
For those who are expecting a repeat of the Mel Gibson movie, then prepare to be disappointed ... or pleasantly surprised. This movie is the sanitized version of the Gibson extravaganza. It is the movie that Gibson would have made if he had decided to ease off on the gratuitous depictions of violence. Depicting violence in a movie about Christ is unavoidable; it is part of the story. The violence has to be shown. The question is: how, without the violence itself becoming the main theme? This movie sticks to the story about Jesus; the violence is a part of the story. He is beaten, mocked, scorned, discredited, tortured, crucified and murdered. The story is told in its entirety. Yet, the director succeeds in telling the story in a straightforward non-sensationalist manner. By emphasizing Christ's humanity he brings the audience into the story. Regardless of your religious beliefs, one can relate to Jesus, his ministry and what he is trying to accomplish. His actions are plausible and understandable. His preaching is simple, sensible and comprehensible. His suffering and anguish is pitiful; his resurrection miraculous. Here the movie is strongest. Unlike the Gibson film, the resurrection is given full treatment and concludes the movie on a positive note, which is appropriate. The story of Jesus Christ requires no embellishment; it speaks for itself. Jesus was born, conducted his ministry, was betrayed, and was sacrificed. This is how the story is depicted in this movie. What more should anyone expect?
Strangers on a Train (1951)
What about the guy who crawls under the moving carousel?
There are some who assert that paranoia is an element in film noir. Yet, there seems to be no evidence of paranoia in the plots of the movie Strangers on a Train. Bruno Anthony is a sociopath. His actions are premeditated. It is his premeditation that makes his behavior so chilling. As for Guy Haines, his fear is not a function of paranoia. He has a legitimate reason to be afraid. Guy conspired with Bruno to commit murder. That Guy conspired in jest makes it no less a conspiracy. The fact that Bruno possesses Guy's lighter is proof that the two of them had established some kind of connection. That the police keep the lighter is evidence that they were not finished with Guy. Robert Walker's performance as a sociopathic killer is uncanny, proof of his skill as an actor. He becomes the epitome of the amoral, narcissistic person who will stop at nothing to gratify his needs. Perhaps the performances that most closely approximate the intensity and style of Walker's performance as a "severely disturbed person" are Jessica Walter's as a homicidal stalker obsessed with a radio disc jockey in Play Misty for Me and Andy Robinson's as a sadistic murderer and kidnapper in Dirty Harry. Harry Hines, the actor who is under the carousel in Strangers, deserves at least an honorable mention.
A unique love affair.
This movie is not as far-fetched as it may seem. In fact, the story is entirely plausible. A man develops a relationship with a computer program which has been designed specifically for that purpose. That the computer is a machine and the program a contrivance becomes less important than how the program is successful in helping the man gratify his emotional needs. The program helps him come out of his emotional shell and honestly confront his feelings. This is no different than a person projecting their emotional needs onto a pet or some inanimate object and then believing that they have an actual relationship with that object. A person may say that they love an automobile, or a fish, and mean it, even if cognitively they realize that these objects are not human. Joaquin Phoenix gives a masterful performance as Theodore, the man who engages with the computer program. His performance is strong yet subtle, and he succeeds in carrying this movie.
The Killers (1946)
Insurance investigator as hero.
This is a very good movie. It is well acted and has excellent continuity. The cinematography captures the sinister and dark mood of the story. The entire cast is excellent with Edmund O'Brien giving an especially strong performance as an insurance investigator who is on to something big and doesn't give up until the case is solved. For the insurance company, solving the case is not a matter of justice, rather it is a matter of recovering money. The police get involved too, but only peripherally. The hero is the insurance investigator. Burt Lancaster plays a boxer turned gambler turned armed robber, and plays the role well. He is quite believable. He also plays a sap for a woman and that weakness proves to be his undoing. Albert Dekker is excellent as the gangster who almost gets away with murder and robbery. Ava Gardner is beautiful and does a great job portraying a sophisticated gang moll who is as cunning as she is beautiful. The movie starts strongly and then changes into a more conventional crime drama while maintaining a high level of suspense. The film noir style suits this story. The characters are troubled, violent and amoral. The use of flashbacks works well, and all the loose ends are tied together at the end of the story.
Toned down version of the book.
This movie is a toned down version of the book. Frank is a drifter and Cora is a whore and their relationship is so twisted that the story itself tests the limits of plausibility. For two people to commit adultery and then conspire to murder someone is within the realm of possibility. These things do happen. But the way the murder is committed and the subsequent miscarriages of justice are a stretch, especially since the district attorney is on to them immediately. That murder took place is so transparently obvious that their beating the rap, so to speak, is ridiculous. This is a case of one plus one equals two, period. Yet, the author reconfigures this equation into making one plus one equals zero. And the only reason why justice finally does prevail is because the two protagonists can't live together. She wants to get married and he wants to drift - this after they meet, cheat, sleep together, steal, defraud and murder. The story's suspense lies not in whether they will beat the rap but how long it will be before the Frank and Cora thing unravels. Now, the part of the story where the lawyer pulls a fast one on the DA regarding the insurance companies is pure hokum. The author is implying that insurance companies will cover up murder to avoid having to pay out on a policy. That's pure literary license. As for the movie, John Garfield and Lana Turner are well casted for the roles of Frank and Cora. It is too bad that the movie does not show the intensity of their relationship, which is the core of the story. Passion got the better of reason, and if the passion cannot be fully shown, then the story itself is weaker. These two young persons are so hot for each other that they lose their self-control, which distorts their thinking. In the book, Frank has a sadistic streak and Cora is a masochist. The book explicitly shows the warped nature of their relationship. That's toned way way down in the movie. Yet, it's a good movie with solid performances which captures the essence, if not the visceral details, of the book.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Good movie but not as intense as the book.
This is a very good movie but it is at best a watered-down version of the book. This movie does not even come close to capturing the cynicism that permeates throughout the book. Also, Humphrey Bogart is miscast as Sam Spade. In the book, Spade is six-feet tall, is muscular and has blond hair. He crosses the line separating the client from the detective so many times that it is clear that he has joined the gang that he ostensibly had been hired to investigate. He literally becomes one of the thieves, and they are thieves and murderers. Furthermore, Spade obstructs the police who are trying to investigate the case which is involves multiple murders, is not above shaking down people and beating people up and ultimately violates the rights of his client by gaining her confidence and then using the information derived to turn her in to the police, this after he had slept with, stripped her and humiliated her. True, the lady is a murderer, but with extenuating circumstances. Further, Spade is cold-hearted and brutal. He is not above have an affair with his partner's wife and when she comes by for support, brushes her off, this while she is in mourning no less. Now, the question is: why would anyone want to write a such a story? Of course, the answer to that question is purely speculative, but from judging from the nature of the story, the author has a cynical view of American society and questions the honesty and integrity of those institutions that are supposed to protect society. The depiction of the police as being little more than nuisances is a case in point. Two police detectives are investigating a double-homicide, which is serious business, and Spade is refusing to cooperate in the investigation, which, of course, raises suspicions as to his culpability in the crimes. There us nothing about Sam Spade that is heroic, genuine or worthy of emulation. He listens to lies for money and when he learns that the thieves are chasing down something that may be worth a lot of money, he joins the chase, abusing his client's right to confidentiality to extract information, not to help his client but to help himself. The movie depicts Spade in a different light. Here his is cynical but not as overtly brutal. He is not shown sleeping with the woman nor of stripping her naked. He is also shown as having a certain code of conduct which he follows while in the book the code of conduct is discarded in favor of crass expediency. Mary Astor is wonderful in the movie, but she too is miscast. The young lady, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, is a whore who is running with a rough crowd and then steals something from a group of thieves, from which the story evolves. She came to Spade for protection and Spade took her money, thus becoming her employee, and confederate. Now, the question of love between Spade and Brigid comes up in the story. Spade repeatedly evades that question, yet his actions speak louder than words, thus showing that he cannot be honest with himself. His actions show that he cares for her: he has the key to her apartment, he sleeps with her, he kisses her, her caresses her, and intercedes on her behalf when another man, Cairo, attempts to molest her. She has no shame with him. In short, she loves Spade, and in return, Spade informs on her because he doesn't want to become one of her saps, which he had already become the money he took her money. Now, does this mean the movie should not be watched. Of course not, it is a classic and is entertaining. But don't expect to find it as intense as the book, because it is not.