Monday, October 30, 2006

Moonrise (1948)

Moonrise: File under Southern Gothic Noir Melodrama

Posted by Paulcito

Frank Borzage's 1948 film Moonrise is a standout among noir's lesser-known B-pictures and is one of the hardest to classify. A noir film you can argue about over a pitcher of cold beer (or two).
Moonrise was once to be a William Wellman A-list picture with Jimmy Stewart or John Garfield but ended up in the lap of Charles Haas at Republic, where Frank Borzage had, in his last years, signed a three-picture deal.

An oddity even in Frank Borzage's own oeuvre, Moonrise is a southern drama infected in equal parts by a noir sensibility and Borzage's romantic stamp. The film has a strange tension between a hardscrabble realism as scripted -- think Grapes of Wrath or Visconti's Ossessione -- and a noirish visual style contributed by cinematographer John L. Russell. Russell later shot Psycho for Hitch. Moonrise takes places in the small town of Woodville, set amidst swamps and rotten antebellum mansions, reminiscent of so many other romantic southern epics. But a David O. Selznick picture this is not. Based on a novel by Theodore Strauss and scripted by producer Haas, the dialogue is endlessly quotable and drenched in philosophy.

The film opens with a montage that shows the sad childhood of Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark). Hawkins is the town outcast, tormented as a child by the other children due to his father's public hanging for having for murdered a sloppy doctor who caused Danny's mother to die through malpractice. The worst cruelty is inflicted by rival Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), the town scion and all-around rich kid bully.

Post-montage, we begin at a southern ball where we meet the adult Danny and learn of his budding, tenuous love affair with the town schoolteacher, the stunning Gilly (Gail Russell). Danny seems remarkably stoic about his status which has made him reclusive but still he shines with a certain trusting innocence and innate goodness. Hopelessly in love with Gilly, a taunt by Jerry Sykes in the woods behind the ball finally drives him the edge and in a moment of fury, he stones Jerry to death. Once the body is found, a frenzied manhunt for Jerry's killer begins and off we go.

The essential noirness of this film lies in the tormented morality of the lead, Danny. With Jerry's death on his hands, he becomes obsessed over whether he has "bad blood", whether he, like his father, is beyond redemption and unworthy of love. During his hideout in the swamps and through confrontations with his confident Mose and his grandmother (a fine and frank Ethel Barrymore) he is eventually convinced that he can wrest some control over fate by turning himself in, but not before some frightenng scenes with Gilly where we sense Danny is so lost there is no return. Russell at times uses noir lighting to maximum effect, such as the interior mansion scene where he surreptitiously meets Gilly.

The film is filled with metaphors that match its brilliant dialogue, such as a scene atop a Ferris wheel where Dannys sense of entrapment at sharing the ride with the town sheriff is so palpable it causes him to jump.

In the swamps, Danny's reflections on his fate have their parallel in his being hunted as an animal - at one point he beats a dog out of frustration and later regrets it. Allyn Joslyn shines as the town sheriff-cum-philosopher poet, who is worldwise and a scholar of both human nature and the towns limitations. Joslyn maintains a hope to the end that Danny can overcome his fatidical blood legacy and do the right thing.

Luckily, Moonrise is now available in a nice restoration print that has been making the rounds of Borzage retrospectives this year. It was recently screened at several festivals including the Palm Springs International FF, the New York FF, Cinecon Classic, and at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Which bodes well for a future DVD release.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Sniper (1952)

It wasn't uncommon for the filmmakers behind mid-century noirs to fuse the then trendy themes of psychoanalysis and assorted related social problems to their hard-boiled storylines. Noirs as disparate as 'Crossfire', 'The Dark Mirror', and 'He Walked by Night' delved, to varying depths, into the tortured souls of their lead characters, and gave them a showcase in the form of an 80 minute matinee.

One such film - Edward Dmytryk's engrossing and refreshingly balanced 'The Sniper' (1952) focuses on an alienated young San Franciscan Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a dry-cleaning driver with a deep-seated resentment towards women. Though the origins of his psychosis remain somewhat murky, we're lead to believe that he's the product of an abusive mother - and as a result his relationships with all women are fraught with dysfunction.

Living a solitary existence in a furnished room, Eddie flirts with the idea of using his high-powered rifle to anonymously murder a happy young woman from his high window - but he fights the urge and hampers his ability by badly burning his trigger hand. While getting it treated, a gentle hospital worker suspects self-infliction, and coaxes some info. from him regarding his psych.-patient past. Seems that Eddie has done time for battery, and feels the urge flaring up again - but when the worker turns his attention to other patients, and Eddie's psych. doctor proves unreachable, his cries for help go unanswered - and the fire re-ignites.

Shortly thereafter, Eddie targets an attractive work customer (Marie Windsor), an entertainer who expressed mild interest but ultimately passes him over. Leaving work late one night she is caught between his crosshairs and is 'punished' - her body smashing through a glass display case in one of noir's more disturbing murder scenes.

Enter Lt. Kafka(!) (Adolphe Menjou), and Sgt. Ferris (Gerald Mohr). Assigned to the case and determined to crack it, the two begin their hunt for a suspect just as a second woman falls victim to Eddie's sharp-shooting skills - the unsuspecting target a barfly who humiliated him. During a jarringly tacky line-up scene replete with would-be comedy-relief suspects, we meet Dr. Kent (an earnest Richard Kiley) who though at odds with his cop counterparts proves he has Eddie's number when he later suggests to the city's blustering officials that proper treatment for captured sex offenders - not jail time -would've prevented this and other 'Eddies'.

More insensitive and indifferent people unwittingly stoke Eddie's coals, and more women are gunned down. Following a chilling sequence at a carnival where an increasingly hostile Eddie frightens onlookers with his hand/eye coordination, Kafka and crew close-in by finding a piece of his hand-bandage at a crime scene and confirming his i.d. with the hospital. Atop a roof and seconds away from taking another life, Eddie shoots a would-be witness before high-tailing it home where the police surround him, break in, and find him sitting quietly - a tear of relief streaming down his cheek.

Dmytryk, no stranger to noir, sets a dry and non-sensational tone that elevates his work out of the 'b' movie ranks. But, this is Franz's film. His beautifully rendered portrayal of a fringe-dwelling tortured soul is a 50's noir highlight. His average looks and strong acting abilities combine to create a character not unlike a 50's 'Taxi Driver'. Psychologically alienated, he's a storm in a bottle - ill-equipped to live within societal boundaries.

Written by Dave

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Posted by Curt

Odds Against Tomorrow(1959) with Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Ed Begley, Gloria Grahame & Harry Belafonte. A brutal, tough, bitter film that was well directed by Robert Wise, and like his previous movie from 1958, I Want To Live!, he pulls out all the stops in this picture and never lets the viewer go until the slam-bang finale, which was lifted from the classic gangster epic White Heat (1949). Robert Ryan is Earl, a hard core racist who constantly antagonizes one of his partners, Johnny Ingram, played with great flair and style by singer Harry Belafonte. These two men, along with ex-police captain Ed Begley who masterminds the bank caper, decide to take down a small, out-of-way bank in Pennsylvania for $150,000. Of course, Begley believes he has the entire robbery planned down to a T. He wants a black man (Belafonte) to impersonate this other black coffee delivery man, so that they can get in the back door. But the whole bank job goes to pieces, as Begley ends up getting gunned down by the cops as they leave the bank and Ryan and Belafonte turn on each other like snakes and chase one another down in a oil refinery and finally shoot each other and blow themselves up along with the oil tanks in a fiery conclusion to this picture.

The music in this superb noir which was composed by John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, sets the mood, atmosphere and tempo for this film perfectly. The soundtrack, which was a seamless blending of both jazz and classicial music influences had never been used in any motion picture before to the best of my knowledge, and as far as I'm concerned, the music made this movie work on all levels from beginning to end. Odds Against Tomorrow is a sour, unpleasant view of life in America in the late 1950's and Robert Wise explores the underbelly of it with brutal violence, racial bigotry, tramp women, desolate highways, cold, lonely landscapes and dark, wet streets. This is America at it's finest and the cold, hard unforgiving truth revealed in this film is very difficult to swallow. This was the final film (imho) made during the end of the classic noir period. Be glad we have it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Posted by Lemmy Caution

Directed by Phil Karlson

(Synopsis with spoilers)

From a hotel room window a man observes the delivery of millions of dollars in cash to a bank across the street. Through several days the man observes and times the routine of the armored truck crew, noticing how a panel truck always arrives to deliver flowers to the shop located next door to the bank just before the armored car arrives. The unnamed man (Preston Foster) recruits three criminals to help him rob the armored truck- Pete Harris (Jack Elam), Boyd Kane (Neville Brand), and Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef). The master mind keeps himself masked in these encounters and explains to all the thieves they will remain masked throughout the heist to avoid identification. During the robbery they use a delivery truck identical to the florist truck. The police chase and arrest the driver of the delivery truck, Joe Rolfe (John Payne), an ex-convict. As they escape the master mind tells the thieves they will be contacted later to collect their share of the money, as a countermark each of the thieves is given half of a playing card, the mastermind keeping the other half.

The police sadistically beat up Rolfe trying to get him to confess to the heist. An insurance agent promises him twenty percent of the money if he helps in recovering the missing money -two million dollars. The police let Rolfe go when the duplicate delivery truck is found. Rolfe decides to go after the thieves to get even for being framed and to get the reward money.

Following a tip from a local underworld figure Rolfe follows Harris to Tijuana, once there he strong arm Harris into letting him join in the money split meeting that is to take place in a Mexican resort town.

As they arrive at the airport a chance encounter with the police leaves Harris dead, leaving Rolfe free to take his identity. Rolfe arrives at the resort and meets Helen Foster (Coleen Gray) the daughter of the master thief himself. We learn that he is Tim Foster, a retired police Kansas City officer bitter about his meager pension who planned the heist to get the reward money and to shame the Kansas City police department. Foster arranges an ambush to get the thieves killed and keep the money. Kane and Romano figure that Rolfe has replaced Harris and try to get rid of him but he turns the tables on them. At the meeting the Foster and the two thieves get killed, leaving Rolfe free to join Helen Foster.


Kansas City Confidential is one of the essential heist films, elements of it have reappeared in countless movies since like The Thomas Crown Affair and The Usual Suspects. It was directed by Phil Karlson at his peak just after Scandal Sheet and right before 99 River Street. (Amazing that he also did Walking Tall! Oh well...).

Karlson achieves a very paranoid atmosphere throughout the film, the scenes in which a masked Foster recruits the thieves is very surrealistic, it looks like something out of Bunuel. The police interrogation sequence is very hard boiled, the KC police department comes out in a very bad light, very authoritarian and cynical even by film noir standards. Maybe Karlson was thinking of The Phenix City Story already.

It is one of favorite movies, I first saw it one day after school in 5th grade (1971!) and it made quite an impression, made me wonder why all those cop shows that were on the air at that time didn’t pack as much of a punch as this “old” movie. Watching it recently it made me think about the nature of Noir, The fact that Foster is not masked during the opening sequence gives away his identity to us but not to the other characters, if it were a standard mystery maybe Foster would have stayed obscured.

Kansas City Confidential seems to be a public domain title, there are various versions of it on DVD, all of varying "quality". I hope it is restored someday like The Big Combo, it really deserves a decent release. (editor's note: it's out now on a fantastic looking DVD. Click on the image above)

The Public Eye (1992)

Posted by Carl

My noir sensibilities a lot more acute than they were in 1992, I revisited The Public Eye recently and liked it very, very much, probably more than when I saw it first-run 14 years ago. Loosely based on a true story about a 1940s New York freelance photographer who beats everybody to crime scenes and urban tragedies for sensational photographs, Joe Pesci gives an extraordinary performance as an urban shutterbug who sees his photos as true artwork of the human condition (even though few others do).

Normally detached and neutral from the street scenes he captures for paltry newspaper payoffs, Pesci is drawn into a gangland war when he falls for gorgeous Barbara Hershey, owner of a nightclub who is trying to hold on to her business from mob-interest encroachment. Hershey gives this shabby little man with a sordid job the compassion and understanding he's never had, initially in an attempt to get information on an acquaintance but later because she is truly taken by his compassion and worldview. They have the beginnings of an unlikely affair while the Pesci character, the Great Bernzini, learns of a plot to rub out an entire mob family. He yearns to capture it on film, even at the risk of his own life. I won't give away what happens.

The plot of this Howard Franklin written-and-directed film is almost secondary to Pesci's character study -- maybe the most nuanced of his career -- and the look of the film. As Bernzini observes his photographic subjects, he views them in gritty, noirish black-and-white even before he puts the lense to his eye, which one can appreciate a lot more having watched the great black-and-white cinematography of John Alton, James Wong Howe, Burnett Guffey, John Seitz and Nicholas Musuraca, among others. The other appealing aspect of Bernzini is how he regards his photos as a truer form of art against the fruit-in-a-bowl photographers who get their work in high-class magazines and bound into books. In an understated way, it's pretty clear the film's creative minds were attempting to convey the majesty and dimension of black-and-white photography (and cinematography) even though the film is shot in color. It's a real classy nod to noir, in my mind, beyond the story line.

Public Eyeis based on the real-life exploits of Arthur "WeeGee" Fellig, who captured New York City's wartime underbelly with amazing perspective and emotional power. Many of Fellig's photos are used in the film, and he is now regarded as one of America's great photographers of the era. Apparently Fellig was as squat and rumpled as the character Pesci plays, and did actually develop photos out of his car trunk in dark alleys as Bernzini does. But he also had excellent newspaper connections, among them New York's most powerful columnist, Walter Winchell.

Pesci is the dominant performer in The Public Eye, but gets fine support from Hershey (my, was she really 44 when she did this?), Stanley Tucci and Jay Adler, perhaps more recognizable these days as Hesh on the Sopranos. Adler is magnificent as a hack play producer who finally hits it big, and conspires with Pesci at the end of the film to help him do likewise. Another familiar Sopranos actor, Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior), does a nice turn as a ruthless mob boss.

Pesci did this role immediately following his Oscar-winning performance in Goodfellas and was an attempt to capitalize on his popularity at the time. It's too bad his big shot at leading-man stardom "didn't take" because he does such a fine job with the role. Perhaps people were waiting for the stream of expletives and or act of violence that never eventuates. It's just a superior performance all the way around.

The Public Eye is very well shot, too -- even though it's set in New York, most of the location scenes were shot in period neighborhoods of Cincinnati and Chicago -- and the score by Mark Isham enhances the film greatly. It surprises me to learn that this film only made $3 million at the box office. Perhaps it was too restrained and subtle for today's audiences, but as a noir fan, I was appreciative of this approach in a modenr film. There isn't a lot of gratuitous violence, swearing or sex, even though the film did draw an R rating. It's tame by today's standards, and it's very tastefully executed, with good bits of suspense and humor.

It took me awhile to find this film since it isn't available on DVD as of yet, a real shame and a gross oversight. I found it in one of the Bay Area's better video stores on VHS. I highly recommend the search, because this is a rewarding watch for a noir fan looking for something a little bit different. Those who have seen it but haven't checked it out in awhile should revisit. I haven't seen it discussed here as a viable, wholly enjoyable contemporary noir but it sure gets my vote.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Posted by Valerie D

I first saw ‘A Place in the Sun’ several months ago at one of film noir’s own places in the sun, the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival. I was much taken with the film but mostly sat out the after-screening ‘noir/ not-noir’ debate that flared up in the group I was with.

But having seen the movie again, I’m convinced that it’s more than just the dated romantic melodrama that a few argued it to be. I would say that in its dark depiction of young lives tragically disrupted, it’s more than a little “noir-stained”. It’s hard to imagine that fate could lay its hand upon a protagonist more heavily than it does in this movie.

Montgomery Clift plays George, a young man from a working-class family with an evangelical upbringing who’s given a chance to get ahead via a wealthy family connection.

From the moment we see George hitching a ride to get to this new life, we know that he’s not going to have an easy time of it and predictably his arrival at the Eastman plant is less than auspicious.

George is clearly ambitious and covets the American Dream. Nevertheless, even though he’s attractive and personable and shares the name, he’s not readily accepted by the Eastman family and their circle. Nor is he able to make friends with his co-workers since his uncle has forbidden social contact between family and employees.

However, he becomes infatuated with one of the smart set, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), who either chooses to ignore him or just doesn’t see him. Disappointed and disillusioned, he falls into a relationship with Alice, a factory girl, as lonely as he is. Played by Shelley Winters, she’s a plain but friendly young woman who clearly relishes the attention.

George briefly seems content with it all. Although he’s uneasy about flouting his uncle’s rules, he feels he’s not doing so badly - he has a steady job, some money in his jeans, a room, a car, a girl, perhaps even a future. It’s a far cry from living at his mother’s mission, finishing his high school at home and working as a bellhop.

But with painful and ultimately deadly timing, fate lays down its hand and, at the very moment that George and Alice’s relationship becomes intimate, George’s uncle promotes him and invites him - now as one of them - to the Eastman home.

He’s introduced formally to Angela who now both sees him and recognizes him as an Eastman. She flirts shamelessly with him and the physical attraction between these two impossibly beautiful young people is immediate and intense. They are completely infatuated with one another and, truly, we are witness to one of the most luminously romantic and passionate liaisons ever.

That said, the dramatic and whirling close-ups used around the pair in these scenes convey an ominous sense of claustrophobia, even paranoia. We get the feeling that, appearances to the contrary, this is not a story that’s going to end well.

It doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel. Alice announces to George that she’s pregnant and although at first he insists that he’ll marry her, he begins to retreat from her and increasingly to lie to her as he’s drawn still further into the Eastman circle. His relationship with Angela and his place in the sun, now tantalizingly close enough to be his, are all he can think about.

Alice, angry at being neglected, confronts George. She threatens to tell all and undo his idyllic romance with Angela. He is distraught. His relationship with Alice has seemingly become the only barrier to the fulfilment of his dream. He feels that the fates are conspiring to send his life spiralling out of control.

But what George thinks of as “the fates” could be his own moral frailty - the decisions he’s taken and choices he’s made. He may feel that the fates are conspiring against him but it’s his own actions and his inability to deal with the consequences that have put him in this predicament.

Inadvertently, Angela provides him with a solution to his problem. She makes innocent mention of a drowning that’s happened at ‘the lake’ and George appears to be listening. In that moment, Angela becomes a virtual femme fatale, causing George to stumble into a classic dead-end street where murder looks like the only way out.


George moves ahead with a plan to kill Alice, but it’s hastily conceived and it immediately becomes apparent that he is ill-equipped to commit such a crime. Right from the outset, he leaves a trail of clues a mile wide.

He takes Alice rowing on the lake but what happens is not what he’d planned. At the critical moment, he’s unable to move to kill her. For a split second, tragedy is averted. However, Alice accidentally stumbles in the boat and falls into the water. Panic-stricken, unable to swim, she is sure to drown. George has a chance to save her (and himself ) but is unable or unwilling to do so and she dies - just as he had hoped she would.

George’s dilemma deepens. He could report the accident and face up to the consequences. But if he did report it, would anyone believe him? He had set out with the intention of killing Alice and given his premeditation, his innocence would be hard, if not impossible, for him to show.

The line between guilt and innocence is blurred at best. We know Alice had told George that she was afraid of water and that she couldn’t swim. We see his reaction to Angela’s story of the drowning at her lake. We watch him listen to the news report on weekend accidents with aroused interest. We listen to him lie to Alice with greater frequency and ease. We hear his heart beat with excitement and fear as a plan takes form. And, in the end, Alice dies because he makes no attempt to save her. Not only is his innocence hard to argue, his claim to it is hard to defend.

With his religious upbringing, George knows that guilty thoughts count as much as guilty deeds. There is no way out - he is doomed and he knows it. With scarcely a word in his own defence, he succumbs to the inevitable - capture, trial, condemnation. Unwilling to act to save his intended victim’s life, he will not now act to save his own.

His loss of moral certainty, his vision of himself as the victim (rather than Alice or even Angela), and his inability to see the inevitable and tragic consequences of his actions place him at the centre of the noir universe.

Visually, ‘A Place in the Sun’ cleaves strongly to noir, with sets and set-ups that are dark and claustrophobic, multiple off-angle camera shots, high-contrast lighting - all of which contribute to the film’s overwhelming sense of despair.

In one striking scene, George is on the first day of his new job, the morning after Alice has told him she’s pregnant. Stevens frames his interiors to suggest George trapped in a cage - an indication of his state of mind and a foreshadowing of the prison cell waiting.

The film’s design and costuming are central to its noirness. Angela is dressed either in white or in black depending on whether she’s seen as part of George’s place in the sun or conversely as the catalyst for Alice’s death. George is dressed in light tweeds on his first visit to the Eastman family and is both dwarfed by the chair in which he is sitting and rendered invisible by the pillars and grandeur of the home. However, as he is accepted into that social circle, his clothing becomes darker and he becomes more dominant
in the scene.

Director George Stevens also subverts our appreciation of exteriors of great natural beauty through ominous foreshadowing of George’s intent. Overall, Stevens brings a craft to the film equal to the movie’s powerful narrative.

A Place in the Sun’ is based on Theodore Dreiser’s epic novel, ‘An American Tragedy’, which runs to over a 1,000 pages. Stevens replaces the sweep and detail of the novel with an intensity and focus that charts the incremental progression of George from an innocently ambitious young man to a confused, guilt-ridden wretch condemned for murder.

As George is led to his execution, his fellow inmates express the hope that he’s headed for a better world than the one he has known. Ironically, he was just beginning to know how good his world could have been. A place in the sun could have been his if he hadn’t been so blinded by the desire for it that he was prepared to do anything to get it.

Sure looks like noir to me.

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