Monday, June 26, 2006

Split Second (1953)

Written by Kristina

I hope Split Second hasn't been done before. The North Korean atomic buzz and the heat this summer inspired me to choose this one. It's not 100% noir, but I found the performances so good and it has some noir elements I thought I'd write about it.

Stephen McNally and Paul Kelly are escaped cons who travel through the desert to their hideout, a ghost town situated in the middle of an atomic bomb testing site, set to detonate the next morning. As the cons travel to the ghost town, they pick up a variety of characters to hijack their cars and to keep them as hostages. The hostages: Jan Sterling is the tough talking dame who's been around, Keith Andes as the newspaper reporter, Alexis Smith as the self-centered wife in Nevada for a divorce, Robert Paige as her current squeeze, and Arthur Hunnicutt as a desert miner who adds a touch of humor to the film.

All these characters are held hostage by McNally and a wounded Kelly who has been shot during their escape. The clock is ticking and the excitement builds. McNally alternates between compassion for his friend and fellow convict, Kelly, and lack of conscience as he strong-arms the gals and kills one of the hostages. His loyalty to Kelly is reminiscent to a degree of James Cagney in White Heat and his relationship with his ma.

Kelly needs a doctor badly, so McNally has called Smith's husband, a doctor, to come to the hide-out or Alexis will die. McNally doesn't know that she is divorcing the husband, played by Richard Egan. So, it's a waiting game, will the doc arrive or won't he, will the hostages be murdered and will anyone get out before the bomb goes off?

You have to see this one for the ending. It rivals the force of Kiss Me Deadly in my opinion. Hope I didn't give it away.

Directed by Dick Powell and clocking in at 85 minutes. TCM shows it a couple times a year. Try to watch it if you haven't, it's a (pardon the pun) blast.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Posted by Dave G

I’m a big fan of Ray Milland. He may not have had the greatest range in the world as a leading man, but he had a certain class, deportment, and an easy debonair charm - like a watered-down Cary Grant sans comic timing. Perhaps the most appealing thing about Milland is his role in "Dial M for Murder" - if HE can end up married to Grace Kelly, there’s hope for us all.

Milland is on solid form in Fritz Lang’s "Ministry of Fear" (from the novel by Graham Greene). The setting is wartime England, and Stephen Neale (Milland) has just been released from an asylum. Determined to reintegrate into society, Neale heads to the local railway station, but before the train to London can arrive, he’s sidetracked by an innocent-looking village fete. It starts out as the stereotypical old-fashioned English event, but gradually evolves into something more sinister: the little old ladies are eager for Neale to visit the fortune teller; she tells him the correct weight to bet at the win-the-cake stall; then shortly after Neale wins it, a surly Dan Duryea turns up, and the little old ladies are suddenly desperate to get their prize back. Thus begins possibly the only film noir in which the MacGuffin is a homemade cake - and it's made with eggs, you know …

After an exciting, vividly executed footchase and gunfight in the countryside during a German bombing raid, Neale finds himself back in London, and sets about investigating the mysterious group responsible for organizing that strange village fete and nearly getting him killed. Soon he finds himself accused of murder, and plunged into a swirling mystery of deception, Nazi agents and war secrets, all played out among the day-to-day dangers of the Blitz.

Lang creates a lingering sense of dread throughout, as Neale moves alone through the foggy, bombed-out streets of London, uncovering a secret enemy network hidden beneath the veneer of respectable society. He can’t approach the police, because of his criminal record, and everyone he meets is a potential enemy - even the beautiful and resourceful Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), who becomes his chief ally. I liked the way her character was written; even as Neale grew closer to her, I wasn’t quite sure where her true allegiances lay.

The psychological state of Milland’s character is hinted at from the outset at the asylum, but only explored in a couple of scenes later on; chiefly that in which Neale, caught in an air-raid and forced to a shelter with Carla, confesses the reason for his incarceration in an asylum: his terminally ill wife committed suicide with poison that Neale had reluctantly bought. Under the circumstances, he was sent to an asylum instead of prison, and is clearly still haunted by the incident. Beyond this, we don’t get a great deal more insight into his psyche - something which might add depth to the movie. This was one of the few aspects of the film I found disappointing - another being the tacked-on, utterly superficial ‘happy ending’ scene which closes it.

Those caveats aside, I found this to be top-notch entertainment, with many memorable scenes, including a creepy, highly atmospheric fake séance. It’s well-played by the principal cast - including that deliciously slimy villain Dan Duryea, whose role here is unfortunately limited. Audiences would have to wait until "Woman in the Window" and "Scarlet Street" for Lang to make full use of Duryea’s talents.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Killer Is Loose (1956)

Posted by Curt

When I first saw this movie a few years ago, I mainly enjoyed it because of Wendell Corey's excellent performance. He never coasted for one minute in his character, and just played his role straight ahead to the hilt. In this picture he portrays Leon Poole, a clerk at a bank. The day of an attempted robbery at his bank, his old army sarge shows up to see him. Well, Leon attempts to stop the bank thieves and gets knocked in the head for it. After this happens his sergeant states he'll never make fun of him again, like he did when he commanded him in his unit. But that was just an act that Leon put on for everyone, because as it turned out, the policeman on the case, Joseph Cotten, found out that poor ole Leon was the inside man on the robbery. Once this happens, there's a big shoot-out at the place where Leon Poole lives with his wife, and his wife gets accidentally killed in the ensuing gun battle with her husband. Then Leon goes to trial for robbery, assault and attempted murder and is given 30 years in prison. As he is walking out of the courtroom, he glares at Cotten and his wife, played by Rhonda Fleming. He tells them both that's he gonna fix their wagon for good, and you just know he means it. Cotten blows it off because he's heard this song and dance before, but his wife is truly bothered by this. Then Leon Poole heads to prison where he gets his act together and walks the straight and narrow and after that he gets put on an honor farm. After he's been there for awhile, he is able to escape by murdering a guard with a blade that he broke off from a hoe. Then with the stolen truck that he uses to make his escape with, he heads to a nearby farm and kills a farmer and takes his clothes and his pickup truck, and drives to the city.

Leon has only one goal in mind and that's to take care of Cotten's wife in return for the death of his own wife. Before doing this however, he first must make a side trip to his old sergerant's place to take care of some unfinished business. While he's waiting for the sarge to return home, he has the sarge's wife scared half to death with all his wild talk.

When the sergeant finally does get home he blasts him with his gun, causing the milk bottle to splatter all over the kitchen along with the sergeant himself. What a mess. After this happens, the sergerant's wife faints dead away and Poole grabs her raincoat and puts it on. By now, Poole is a total nutcase and he heads for Cotten's home. The police are hot on his trail, and they have it figured out that Poole will be going after either Cotten or his wife. There are cops hidden all around Cotten's home as Leon Poole stalks Cotten's wife as she walks up to their house. When Leon decides to make a move on her, the cops blow away poor old Poole right there on the front lawn.


When I saw this movie the first time, the two key scenes that really stuck in my mind were the creepy stalking scene where Wendell Corey is dressed up like a woman following Rhonda Fleming along the rain slicked sidewalks at night. The other disturbing scene is when Leon Poole shoots down his former sergeant while he clutches a milk bottle, and then the bottle shatters all over the place and pots and pans go flying off the wall. That was very scary. This film was directed by Budd Boetticher, who had done many western movies with Randolph Scott, but very few film noirs that I know of.

A terrific movie from beginning to end in my imho. I also enjoyed the totally flat 50's photography. Highly recommended for all those noir fans who have yet to see it.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Deux hommes dans Manhattan (1959)

Posted by Steve-O

Two Men in Manhattan is both a realistically grim noir tale and a kind of dream world you can only see at the movies. Released at the end of the classic noir period and near the beginning of the French one, Duex hommes dans Manhattan is a film noir where New York City is the film’s main character. In “A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953)" the French authors Borde and Chaumeton mention that most French noir released beginning in 1955 were garbage. The book was written before this film was released, but I suspect they would have not liked this one either. It’s not a very serious film. Instead, it’s a light and conventional film that the makers clearly enjoyed creating.

This is director Jean-Pierre Melville’s first attempt at noir. According to interviews later in his life, he considered this to be his weakest film. That may be true. He did go on to make the noir-inspired films Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Samouraï, Le Cercle rouge and Un Flic - I have seen them all and, yes, they are better than this one. (Correction: Bob le flambeur came out before this one in 1955, so this would be Melville's second noir. - Steve-O) Melville's future noir are either great or very good. However that doesn’t make this a bad film, just a good one. The story is simple and light and could have easily have been a pretty good American noir starring Karl Malden and John Garfield. Instead it’s a low-budget French film with director Melville playing the part of the good journalist and Pierre Grasset (Rififi) as a photojournalist that will do anything to sell his photos.

The film looks like it was shot on the run. All the outdoor New York scenes, beginning with some great shots of Times Square, appear to be shot quickly before anyone realized that a film was being made. Just in the first five minutes alone, you can catch Times Square, the UN building and Rockefeller Center at Christmas time.

The plot is simple. The two journalists are on the trail of a story -- a French diplomat, and former Resistance hero, has disappeared from the U.N. for no apparent reason. As they wander through the city, visiting various NYC landmarks tracking down the reason for the disappearance, the journalists eventually discover that the man has died while at the apartment of his mistress. The womanizing and always drunk photographer poises the dead body to look like he died while in bed with his girlfriend and snaps off some photos. Now the two men have a serious disagreement. Delmas (Grasset) wants to take the enhanced photos and use them to create sensational headlines and plenty of cash, but Moreau (Melville’s character name appears to be a pun on “moral”), who feels compassion for the man’s daughter, wants them both to cover up all they have found and bury what they know.

The film’s dialog is both French and English. Melville - who looks like the night owl he portrays with his wide sad eyes - has an interesting face and wasn’t that bad of an actor. I would have liked to see him in more films. (He was the narrator for Bob le flambeur.) It should be noted that many of the actors, especially the American ones, clearly aren’t professionals. Also, some of the English lines are just horrible, including the ones spoken by Melville. However what the film lacks in writing and acting is made up for with the great documentary-style footage of the Big Apple. The deep-focus long shots are beautiful and Melville’s use of shadow and light is breathtaking.
This week’s Film Noir of the Week may not be widely available, but it’s worth seeking out.

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