Monday, December 26, 2005

The Killing (1956)

Posted by Carl

My original NOTW plan for this week was to lift the curtain on a Sterling Hayden heist double feature, coupling The Killing with The Asphalt Jungle, but I decided that it would be a bit hoggy to grab two certified classics in one swoop. Hence, I’m going with what I feel is the slightly better of the two films, even if Hayden’s Johnny Clay is a far less noble and likable character than his Dix Handley from ``Jungle.’’ In fact, all the characters in The Killing are fairly cold and unlovable - the bartender with his ill wife excepted - as compared to those in The Asphalt Jungle. But that makes it an even darker film and a more compelling noir, at least from this view.

The debate between The Killing and Jungle, is a worthy one - in our all-time noir poll, John Huston’s Jungle finished 4th and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing 10th. Checking back on my own ratings, I had The Killing 7th and The Asphalt Jungle 10th. No doubt, it’s close. The inexorable link between the two films is Hayden, who enjoyed two of his best roles with these distinctly different caper films (only his General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove tops them).

The Killing is Kubrick’s only fully realized noir and a decidedly mature effort for someone making just his second full feature at the tender age of 27. I haven’t read many Kubrick interviews on his influences but I’d be very surprised if the great noir directors of the late 40s and early 50s didn’t make a dramatic impression on him technically and stylistically. Even his non-noir films such as Lolita, Path of Glory and Dr. Strangelove are shot with in distinct, shadowy noir tones.

Moreover, in selecting his cast for The Killing, it was if Kubrick decided to field an all-star team of players from his favorite noir films - Hayden, Elisha Cook, Marie Windsor, Ted de Corsia, Coleen Gray, Jay C. Flippen, Joe Sawyer and Vince Edwards. To that group, he adds his own noir prodigy, the astounding and truly frightening Tim Carey as puppy-loving psychopath Nikki Arcane.

To my mind, The Killing rates a narrow edge over The Asphalt Jungle for two reasons: 1) the sheer ingeniousness of the race-track heist itself and its Mission Impossible-like execution, and 2) Kubrick’s non-linear telling of the tale through overlapping vignettes of the myriad characters, a direct draw from the Lionel White’s novel but nonetheless a fresh cinematic twist on noir storytelling. The Killing is a jigsaw puzzle of a film that all comes together in a fascinating climax. Unlike Jungle’s Dix Handley, Johnny Clay doesn’t wind up dead but sounds like he wishes he were when he says, ``Ah, what’s the difference?’’ in the final scene. He knows he’s headed back to Alcatraz after his plan - successfully executed -- ultimately fails on the subsequent flukes of fortune of Sherry Peatty’s greed and infidelity, George Peatty’s jealousy and … well, Johnny's inability to buy a decent suitcase despite making a $2 million haul.

The interplay between Windsor and Cook as husband and wife is delicious entertainment. It’s a crack-up every time she informs poor George that dinner is still down at the store. She’s a femme fatale of the first order, someone who’s definitely been around the block of times. A past liaison with Johnny Clay is at least hinted at the point she is caught spying on the gang and Johnny declares he’s going to pound her face into hamburger.

All the other character players are terrific as well. De Corsia is the classic sleazy cop; what a sensational scene when he blithely drives away from the woman who is initially happy she’s found a policeman to break up a domestic dispute. Kola Kwarian the wrestler seems a nod to Night and The City and is expertly played by Maurice Oboukhoff. But the scene-stealer is Carey, more chilling than Norman Bates and significantly more menacing. The Asphalt Jungle had nothing like Nikki, for sure.

Kubrick makes winning collaborations in The Killing with co-screenwriter Jim Thompson and cinematographer Lucien Ballard. My only problem with the film is its shrill score by Gerald Fried. I can only imagine this film scored by someone like Bernard Herrmann or Roy Webb. But that’s not enough to hold back The Killing from greatness. It’s one of those noirs you can watch over and over again and uncover fresh revelations in each viewing.

It comes late in the classic cycle, even post-dating the apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly, but the film has nonetheless become a pillar of the genre, whether it’s truly a superior film to The Asphalt Jungle or not. The reason is Kubrick, who created a valentine to the genre and also added something new - an even more dark and demented depth of spirit that portended the neo-noirs of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as films like Pulp Fiction in the 1990s. It belongs in every noir library on the top shelf.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

This Lewis Milestone film is one of the most superbly realized of the big budget noirs. Barbara Stanwyck delivers one of her finest performances opposite Van Heflin; newcomers Kirk Douglas (his film debut) and Lizabeth Scott (her second screen appearance) more than hold their own. Judith Anderson and Roman Bohnen add fine character performances.
Composer Miklós Rózsa scored the picture and screenwriter Robert Rossen adapted a story which served as the basis of the script. Milestone's assistant directors were Robert Aldrich and Byron Haskin. Both of these gentlemen went on to direct well regarded noirs of their own. Fortunately, a new print transfer has been recently released and the film looks quite good in comparison to the many faded public domain copies.

In attempting to describe the film, which approaches grand opera at times, I am hard pressed to avoid including any potential plot spoilers. This movie is so good that I do not want to ruin it for anyone who may be watching it for the first time by divulging too many plot points.

The industrialized city of Iverstown is one of the truly memorable dark cities in the atlas of film noir geography. The picture opens in a railroad yard in the year 1928. Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) is fleeing the police as he runs across the yard and seeks refuge in a box car. Inside the car is Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson), the niece of the ruling matriarch of Iverstown and heir to the factory fortune. Sam and Martha plan to run away by hopping a departing circus train that will leave the city at midnight. Before they can make their way to the train, the police discover the youngsters.

Sam makes good his escape while Martha is returned to the Ivers mansion. Martha is confronted by her aunt (Judith Anderson) and her private tutor, Mister O'Neil (Roman Bohnen). Martha has made numerous attempts to run away in the immediate past and her aunt is prepared to send her away to boarding school as a means of circumventing another such incident. The hatred between the child and her aunt is visceral. Martha's parents are both dead and her aunt is determined to clean her up and make an Ivers out of her. When Martha protests during the argument that her actual last name is "Smith," her aunt boasts that she has had her niece's name changed "legally." Martha's late father was a mill worker who married a daughter of the factory owner. When the aunt insults his memory, Martha shouts at her and the aunt responds that "The only good thing that your father ever did was to die!" When Martha threatens to run off again, her aunt reminds her that she controls enough of the world to see to it that Martha will always "be brought back here."

Later that night, with a thunderstorm raging outside, Sam Masterson returns to Martha's bedroom, entering the house by climbing through an upstairs window. There is still time for the teenagers to make the circus train if they hurry. Walter O'Neil, the son of Martha's tutor is present when the two begin to plan their getaway. A lightening strike knocks out the electricity in the house and when the aunt climbs the grand staircase to investigate a ruckus upstairs, something happens to change the lives of all three of the adolescents.

Eighteen years pass before Sam Masterson (Van Heflin), now a decorated military veteran and a career gambler, returns to Iverstown in 1946. His visit is purely accidental in that he damages his automobile while staring at a billboard promoting IVERSTOWN as America's fastest growing industrial city. Sam quips that "The road curved, but I didn't." When he pulls in to a garage for repairs, he learns that Walter O'Neil (Kirk Douglas) is now the local prosecuting attorney with aspirations for higher political office. O'Neil is now married to the former Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck), the owner of the local steel mill. A chance meeting with a young woman down on her luck by the name of Antonia "Toni" Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), outside of a boarding house that was once Masterson's boyhood home, leads Sam to seek a favor from the district attorney which leads to an escalating series of dramatic complications.

Barbara Stanwyck is rare form as the controlling Martha trapped in a loveless marriage to a weak and alcoholic husband, Walter O'Neil, played by Kirk Douglas. There is something perverse and sick about their relationship that almost suggests something akin to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Walter genuinely loves Martha, but she would prefer that he would simply "let go!" Martha has conducted a series of extramarital affairs and seems content with her husband only when she is free to dominate and humiliate him. Walter derives some satisfaction as the district attorney because it allows him to feel like God as he trifles with the lives of the petty criminals who pass through the police station and court house. O'Neil is a man who can work a political fix and a frame job with the help of the crooked cops and detectives who work with him.

Martha remains attracted to Sam Masterson in part because of his presumed criminality. Sam cautions Martha "I have killed, but I have never murdered." Martha has a streak of latent sadism about her and seems to relish the prospect of violence at times. For all of his rough and tumble living, Sam still possesses something of a moral center. He has familiarized himself with passages from the Gideon Bibles in the cheap hotel rooms in which he has so often stayed. In one scene, Sam advises Toni Marachek to remember that Lot's wife was reduced to a pillar of salt because she looked backward rather than moving forward.

This is a superlative film noir which can be watched and rewatched. Iverstown is smokestack city filled with secrets and political corruption in high places.

Written by Dan in the MW

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Body Heat (1981)

Posted by Harald the Swede


I've been wanting to write about Body Heat for some time. I love it to death, yet feel it's often somewhat forgotten next to Chinatown, The Last Seduction, The Hot Spot, Farewell My Lovely, and other neo-noirs.

A common opinion seems to be that it's merely a poor copy of film noir in general, and Double Indemnity in particular. Well, I beg to differ. Body Heat qualifies as my favorite neo-noir, no contest. In fact if I were to create a list of my favorite 20 movies of all time, I wouldn't be surprised to see Body Heat make the list. That's how much I like it. Now for the 10 million dollar question: why? This is especially interesting for me since I regard Double Indemnity my favorite noir.

The short answer is I feel Body Heat is the perfect neo. It takes almost all the classic noir elements, and puts them in a modern world. Without making it feel contrieved, staged or unnatural.


Body Heat is written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, perhaps most famous for writing the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. His biggest success in the director's chair is probably the Kevin Costner feature Wyatt Earp. Unlike with Wyatt Earp Lawrence insisted on casting relatively unknown actors for Body Heat, and when Alan Ladd Jr left 20th Century Fox to form his own company Lawrence finally got his way.

The movie stars Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker) in her first movie as a stunning femme fatale. An impressive debute to say the least. With her is William Hurt in his second or third movie. He plays the dim-witted, corruptible and horny male protagonist and lawyer Ned Racine, who gets enthralled by Matty. He delivers a very good performance as well. For backup they have great actors like Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker), Ted Danson (Peter Lowenstein) and Mickey Rourke (Teddy Lewis).

The cinematography is done by Richard H. Kline, who also did Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Soylent Green, and The Boston Strangler among others. He is the son of Benjamin H. Kline, who worked as cinematographer on an impressive amount of movies, including Whirlpool, Ulmer's Detour, and the recently discussed Club Havana.

The wonderful music in Body Heat comes courtesy of famed composer John Barry. The jazzy tunes are tense, sensual and beautiful. In fact I'd argue his music in Body Heat is at least as good as his James Bond and The Persuaders themes. And the tunes fit perfectly with the rest of the movie.

The movie, and long answer. SPOILERS BELOW!

Let me start with one thing Body Heat actually does better than Double Indemnity. Unlike with Walter we know from the very beginning that Ned Racine is a no-good man. In the first scene he looks out the window onto a burning building down below and remarks "probably one of my clients", referring to the one deciding to demolish the building where Ned used to eat with his family 25 years ago. This tells us that he is clearly a man of loose moral standards. It is also enforced throughout the entire movie. Whenever he goes out running, he always finishes with a smoke. We learn of a malpractice suite filed against him. As he passes a boy smoking a joint in a public bathroom he looks at him almost with approval. The list goes on and on.

Not only is he a man of loose moral standards, he is a loser as well. As he first meets Matty she tells him "You're not very smart, are you? I like that in a man." This he doesn't even comment upon. No retort, no witty comeback. He takes it, just like a man who isn't very smart. Other small details also let us know that Ned is a loser, like when he tries to throw his hat at the coat hanger, but fails to make it stick.

What all this means is that when the familiar plot twist comes and Ned suggests they murder Matty's husband in order for them to be together, it is completely believable. Something that can't quite be said for Double Indemnity.

There are also several hints that this wont go as it's supposed to. Perhaps most obvious is the scene where Ned stares at a car slowly making it's way down the street. In it sits a sad clown. A perfect image of things to come. Another scene have Matty, her husband (Edmund, played by Richard Crenna), and Ned sitting at a restaurant. Edmund notices Matty playing with Ned's lighter. Later as Matty goes to freshen up Edmund tells Ned that he'd probably kill any man who steals Matty from him.

Yet another warning comes from Mickey Rourke who has a small role as a criminal and explosives expert. As Ned has Mickey show him how to make a bomb Mickey gives fair warning, citing something Ned once told him. "Anytime you try a decent crime you've got fifty ways you can f**k up. If you figure twenty five of them then you're a genius, and you aint no genius." At this point Ned is determined to ahead with the murder though. He has made up his mind, and is in it all the way to the end.

An interesting twist in Body Heat compared to Double Indemnity is that instead of planning the murder to receive twice the insurance money, Matty suggests they change the will in order for her to receive all of her husband's fortune. In the current will she only receives half of it. Ned wont have it though, as he thinks it's too risky. In fact when it comes to murder he is as careful as Walter Neff was.

Something I like about Double Indemnity, and many other noirs, is the sexual tension. Tension that is achieved by very small means. A look can tell more than a thousand words. Nowadays there is usually only sexuality, no tension. Something often seems lost in the transition to more graphic and vocal sexuality, and there is lots of it Body Heat (steamy but tasteful, if you ask me). Yet they still manage to achieve a tension similar to what you find in classic films noir.

One tense scene has Ned on the porch and Matty on the inside testing him, waiting for him to make his move. Ned decides to kick in a glass door in order to quite frankly go hump. This reminds me of something Chandler once wrote: "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."

The cinematography in Body Heat is really good. While many scenes take place in broad daylight, there are also several scenes at night and/or in fog. We also get a few good examples of low key, high contrast lighting. Perhaps the best scene is when Matty is about to go up to the boat house. Standing about 20 meters away she is completely lit, while everything around her is pitch black. Very effective.

The movie also uses extreme heat to create a noir atmosphere. This has been used in other movies, but Body Heat might be the first one to actively use it in a neo-noir (earlier examples welcome). Again I feel this is a modern way of making movies, that still envokes a feeling very similar to classic films noir. Instead of having people in soaked trench-coats we have lightly dressed or even naked people wet from sweat. And the water is important. Being wet somehow strips you to the bone. It washes away your make-up, real or projected. It also gives the feeling of a hostile environment, just like heavy rain can do. It is also worth noting that extreme heat was commonly used in hard-boiled fiction, like in Chandler's novels. And perhaps most importantly for Body Heat, it fits perfectly with the visual sexuality. The air breathes sex, deadly sex.

Not only the environment is hostile. The inhabitants are usually hungry either for money, for power or for sex. It is done in a more subtle way than most classic films noir though. At first glance people might seem like regular Joes, but look deeper and darker sides are revealed. Even Ted Danson who has a role somewhat similar to Keyes in DI isn't completely clean. He is willing to let a guilty man walk, and is as hungry for sex as everyone else. Ned's other pal and colleague Oscar Grace (played by J.A. Preston) balances Ted out however, by having a stronger urge to always do what is right.

Another example of expert film making is the scene where Ned receives his Fedora. It puts a twist on the classic concept of duality. Ned wants so see how he looks in the Fedora, so sitting on the other side of an open car door Matty winds up the window. As she fades away behind it, an image of the now hat wearing Ned rolls up. To me this is when Ned truly becomes a noir protagonist, capable of murder. The image in the window is a mirror of his true self. To enforce this doom the next scene has Ned and Matty caught in the act for the first time. Quite ironic considering how the hat was supposed to protect him. Earlier Ned had said: "Sometimes the sh*t comes down so heavy I feel I should wear a hat." So Matty gets him one.

The dialogue is written in a very tongue in cheek and noirish way. It provides some comic relief to this mostly serious movie, and it works great. Here is one witty exchange between Matty and Ned as they sit at a bar, all sweaty from the heat:

M: My temperature runs a couple of degrees high around the hundred. I don't mind, it's the engine or something.
N: Maybe you need a tune up?
M: Don't tell me, you have just the right tool?
N: I don't talk like that.

The ending to this tale of lust and greed is most satisfactory. I wont give it all away, but I must mention that while I do feel Matty actually did fall in love with Ned, it turns out she loved money more. It comes at a high price to her, but she most definitely would've done it all over again if she had to. I can't think of a more interesting, entertaining and devious femme fatale in recent movie history.

My opinion is clear. This isn't a blatant Double Indemnity rip-off, this is the Double Indemnity of the 80s.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Scarlet Street (1945)

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This week's Noir of the Week is Scarlet Street.
Its one of my favorite films. Most of you already know the story and hopefully have seen the new release of the film on DVD from Kino International.

The film was directed by Fritz Lang and was based on the 1930's French film, La Chienne.

Scarlet Street is about a common bank cashier in the 1930s who succumbs first to vice and then murder. I won't give the plot away, because I'd run out of room writing all the film's twists and turns.

What I enjoy about this film is the common man (played by Edward G. Robinson) is as selfish as Kitty and Johnny (Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea). There isn't a good person in the whole story. Even his boss (cheating on his wife) and wife (old battle-axe) are evil to a degree. Most critics seem to think the film is a carbon copy of The Woman in the Window. I have to disagree. In that one, Robinson and Bennett are sophisticated and smart (OK, Duryea is the same). Robinson is spending the evening with the beautiful girl on a lark - just so he can brag to his friends. In Scarlet Street, Robinson plays a man who married his wife because he was dying of loneliness. In the middle of Scarlet Street, he says "I've never seen a naked woman!" to his wife giving us a pretty good hint that they never even consummated their relationship. Cross is a dreamer. His two dreams stated in the film was to become a painter and to have a "young girl" fall in love with him. He gets both. But his idea of love and art are selfish.

In the book Dark City: The Film Noirby Spencer Selby, Selby writes how two of the characters view art; and how their view helps define them:

"The idea of wishful dreams, around which Scarlet Street is built, becomes strongly linked with the idea of art. Cross' standing as Johnny and Kitty's key to riches is totally dependent upon his identity as an artist. To Johnny, great art is a "dream come true" solely because it is worth a lot of money. With Cross, the association of art, wishful dreams and glamorous love was first established in that early dialog with the friend. The link is extended and further clarified when he compares his love for Kitty to his love for art. Though more genuinely aesthetic than Johnny's, this association is really just as selfish and subjective. For both characters, art represents a dreamlike escape from the problems and frustrations that plague mundane existence. Johnny's dream takes a beating when he pierces the illusion of Cross' artistic fame by selling two of his paintings. However, in doing this he has set the stage for real success and a new illusion. As the work of Kathrine March, Cross' paintings become instantly popular and valuable. Johnny engineers this deception solely for his own profit, but thematically his action further reinforces the important link between art and illusion."

Selby hits the nail on the head. Art for Johnny means money and for Chris romantic love. Both of these things will eventually destroy both of their lives. Watching the movie again I was taken by the three performances.

Robinson plays the sap great. He's not as innocent as I first thought. True, he's run through the ringer. But in the end he kills a woman and lies to send a man to the electric chair. First, I thought that he was haunted by guilt after their deaths. He's not. He's haunted by the fact that he was made a fool of by Kitty and Johnny. Sitting in his room alone at the end he hears Kitty and Johnny's voices taunting him. They're telling him that now they can be together in death all thanks to him. Robinson's performance is more physical than verbal. When he knocks Johnny to the ground with an umbrella in a silent attack, he throws his arm in front of his face trying to block a blow that never comes. Much later, before he kills ice princess Kitty with a pick (appropriate), he walks into the room all hunched over looking much older than when he was walking on clouds in love. And how 'bout when he's forced to do the dishes wearing a flowery apron? Classic.

Bennett in the film is the ultimate vamp. In the new print you can see her facial expression change to really tell what she's thinking. Hint: it's usually not what's coming out her mouth. Sure, Chris must be blind not to see he's being taken, but Kitty plays her role well. I love her apartment with dishes pilling up in the sink and her spitting grape seeds around the place. She's a lazy slob with some great legs. Bennett plays the part just right. She like Johnny even though he slaps her around. In fact, that's why she likes him. She states that if Chris wasn't so nice to her she would like him better. Kitty will do anything for Johnny and that's what gets her killed.

Duryea is the big bad wolf. Boy is he good in this. Never has a performer been so good at entertaining as well as delivering on a part. The first time I saw this film, about ten years ago late at night on A&E, I remember flipping through a few books trying to find out who this guy was. He plays Johnny just right. His cloths even match his attitude. Everyone knows someone kind of like him. Johnny's always involved in schemes and trying to make it big without really trying. And blaming everyone else for his failures. Remember when Chris walks in and sees the two together in bed? What does Johnny do? He blames Kitty. In fact, every time something goes wrong, he blames her. Can you imagine anyone else pulling off the role?

Of course, the film isn't just about the performances. Lang and his crew put together a stunning looking film. There are a number of scenes showcasing the films lighting and camera work (Milton Krasner is the Director of Photography). When Kitty is killed in the white bedroom by Chris; and Chris being haunted by voices in his seedy room come to mind. The script is filled with great dialog and quotable noir lines.

Fritz Lang may be remembered for Metropolis, but for me his gift to film lovers is Scarlet Street.


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