Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pushover (1954)

Streamlined and brisk, Richard Quine's nocturnal 'B' thriller 'Pushover' remains one of noirs lesser-appreciated 'dirty-cop' entries - despite it's boasting strong writing, directing, and two fine lead performances from respectively; Fred MacMurray, in a nice companion piece to his lustful dupe role in Double Indemnity; and fledgling screen siren Kim Novak, who brings a sleek modernity to the noir vixen.

Having fallen for the breathtaking young girlfriend of the vicious bank robber he's assigned to nab, broke middle-aged cop Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) agrees to put kept dame Leona's (Novak) suggested plan into motion - and murder the thug when he sneaks back to collect her, before making his way with her and the thug's ill-gotten gains to the exit from his quiet desperation.

In the cleverly-constructed script (by 'Fugitive' creator Roy Huggins), Sheridan is the one over-seeing the stakeout of Leona's apartment - in anticipation of her man's return from being on the lam - but as the secret lovers near their goal they must navigate dangerous waters - populated with Paul's fellow officers, their hard-nosed captain (an irritating E.G. Marshall), and the object of Paul's partner's affection (Dorothy Malone).

A refreshing and decidedly more romantic variation on the murderous love-triangle blueprint - 'Pushover's Paul and Leona appear to genuinely care for one another.
Not simply a tale of illicit lovers double-crossing each other - 'Pushover's plot concerns a star-crossed pair's attempt to put one over on life itself - leaving their respective stale existences behind for a life of warm love and cold cash - and all to the strains of Arthur Morton's maddeningly catchy score.


Never a scenery-chewer, MacMurray quietly shines in his role - giving a restrained and authentic performance. Addled with bills and complexes, his weary flatfoot aches to break free - and with Leona's insistence that .."Money isn't dirty, just people..", mulls it over, goes against his better judgment, and concludes that the iron's just hot enough. Complementing MacMurray in her debut lead role, Novak delivers the goods - equal parts beauty and raw talent. Sort of a 'fatale-in-training', her Leona is less guilty of treachery than of youthful inexperience - in her scheme to 'rob Peter to pay Paul'.

Showing a real knack for noir, Quine (who's only other genre credit is the passable 'Drive a Crooked Road') keeps his compositions tight, confining - and his streets rain-slicked. His flat 50's cinematography is perfect for showcasing the story's late-night dives, back alleys, and shadow-laced apartments.

Released the same year as 'Shield for Murder', 'Rogue Cop', and 'Private Hell 36', 'Pushover' may prove to be less memorable than those more melodramatic 'cop-gone-bad' entries, but Quine's engrossing and poignant nail-biter does not suffer in comparison.

Written by Dave

Monday, November 20, 2006

Edge of the City (1957)

Posted by Curt

This movie was Martin Ritt's film directing debut, and along with Hud, these were his two best and most powerful pictures that he ever did. Edge Of the City is a courageous and brave film that deals with interracial relationships, with Sidney Poitier emerging as the hero among the cruel city dwellers. John Cassavetes, still a handsome young man, fresh from making Crime in the Streets, is a.w.o.l. from the army, living in a small, crummy room and toiling on the New York docks as a longshoreman. He hooks up with Poitier while working on the docks and they become close friends. Poitier introduces him to his wife, played by Ruby Dee, and they listen to bop records and dance in the living room and swill down beer. A very cool 50's hip scene. But after awhile things go sour working at the docks, especially for Poitier who runs afoul with Jack Warden, who plays a mean, brutal foreman that baits and goads Poitier into a fight. The both of them go at it with grappling hooks in a savage showdown brawl, with Poitier being overpowered by the Irishman Warden and finally losing his life in the battle.

Axel (John Cassavetes) wants to avenge his best friend's death even though by doing this, he knows he could be caught by the authorities as a deserter. Several other co-workers witnessed the fight, but they're all gutless and afraid of Jack Warden, knowing that if anyone snitched on him they could end up losing their jobs if they couldn't prove that he actually did the nefarious deed. After much soul searching, Cassavetes finally confronts Warden in a fight to the finish with hooks. The both of them go at each other in a very vicious battle, with Cassavetes winning out with a nasty slice of his hook to the head of Warden who goes down for the last time. This is an extremely well acted and directed film noir, with brilliant editing by Sidney Myers and smoky black & white photography that gives the viewer a sense of unrelieved visual distress while watching it. This movie is best seen at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. in the morning because the lateness of the hour gives this picture a more intense viewing experience.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Stolen Face (1952)

Posted by JeffMarkham

Of course this film is never going to get real notice, but I think it should. It is one of noirs more bizarre outings, like Decoy incorporating sci-fi elements that require a HUGE suspension of disbelief, but Decoy was nowhere near as farfetched as this. Add to it you’ve got Bette Davis’s cardboard cutout leading man and Lizabeth “Just grin and look at the camera” Scott. But that being said, it’s over the top premise only makes this noir stand out more than the rest and its actors are far better at this stage than history has credited them to be.

But here it’s really the two leads who give this film life, making it far beyond another noir programmer and adding new dimensions two there characters, making us at least buy the farfetched premise of the story. Of all people, it’s really Lizabeth Scott who delivers the film.

It’s an interesting bridge between Terence Fisher’s gap between his noirs and Hammer horror films. Here we have a story of a man so obsessed with the ideal woman that he creates a femme fatale in the making, and yet he manages to have to technology to make this woman an exact duplicate of the original. It’s not a masterpiece, but certainly an entertaining, and very well done curio. It does of course tread into programmer comedy during the first quarter, but Fisher does add a great montage showcasing Lizabeth Scott’s unhappiness on tour and Paul Henreid’s unhappiness with his new creation.

Though I had poor words to say about Henreid, he really hit his stride in his noir outings. His ‘leading man’ career only served to bounce off the larger than life personalities of Bogart, Bergman, and especially Davis (and though still wooden, he complemented her very very nicely, especially in Now, Voyager). Beginning in the 1947 Davis-noir a different side of him came along. Here he was playing a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown with violent tendencies, and to me he drives the suspense of that film. A year later he would be doing Hollow Triumph, managing to play two roles and a complex anti-hero. In Stolen Face, he gives a very poorly written role something far more, making his Dr. Phillip Ritter someone beyond mere obsession with a woman, so infatuated he will go to the greatest measure to obtain her. His confession to Scott of his creation does not even feel like it is out of guilt, but out of profession of his love towards her.

Lizabeth Scott’s the surprise here. I’m one of the many who finds her acting far too one dimensional and mechanical, but here she’s different. At this point in her career far past her glory, she seems to be actually trying, whether it be to move out of the poverty row rut or maybe finally maturing into an actress. She manages to create two very different characters and breathes life into each. Her Alice Brent, though far less interesting than her doppelganger Lily Conover, is a woman who has no clue what she wants out of life, never certain over the decisions she has to make. Shall she choose a life with a man whom she barely knew but fell head over heels for, or a man who has dutifully stood by and cared for her throughout her career? Should she continue a life as an esteemed concert pianist, or live a simple life with a man who she has been swept away by. Her lack of assertiveness makes her choice to stay with a man who has become psychotically obsessed with her at least somewhat plausible.

As Lily Conover, on the other hand, she truly shows her growth as an actress. Lily Conover is incredibly complex, incredibly vulnerable and yet recklessly destructive to everyone around her. She’s a twisted version of Eliza Doolittle, who only causes more destruction when managing to become a ‘lady.’ She now can both charm her way to get what she wants in addition to her many criminal impulses. However Scott adds a childlike demeanor to this femme fatale, making her vulnerable and incapable of telling right from wrong. I certainly do feel this film marks a real turning point for her (though lets face it, she does a horrible cockney accent and still can not make it believable that she is the same woman as pre-surgery Lily), I’d be very curious to see how she fared in her final two noirs after this, Bad for Each Other and The Weapon.

It’s an incredibly entertaining noir, featuring a very disturbed femme fatale and a man who is both a victim and responsible for her and her actions. And with a story that is of a man who manages to make an exact physical duplicate of a woman with hazardous results, how can this not be at least a fun ride?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jack Palance dies at 87

Image Hosted by

"One of the most important reasons for living is to do something - live outside of yourself and put together an idea, an idea that you want to explore and then complete... Awaken your creative sensitivities!"

Jack Palance

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Alias Nick Beal (1949)

This film is an interesting combination: an otherworldly fantasy combined with film noir. It’s a “modern” sell-your-soul-to-the-devil story which moves along nicely thanks to a top-notch cast.

Ray Milland is Nick Beal - who may be better known as “Old Nick” or sometimes Satan. The mysterious shadowy man shows up shortly after District Attorney Joseph Foster says aloud that he’d sell his soul to convict a local mob boss. The mysterious Beal, wearing a suit not hoofs and horns, offers Foster the evidence to convict the man. There is a catch: Foster gets the information from Beal at a secret waterfront location - without a search warrant. He uses the evidence anyway knowing that he got it unethically.

Fame follows the DA after the successful conviction and he’s convinced by his colleges to run for governor. The once squeaky-clean Foster agrees. When he finds that running for office isn’t as easy as he thought he begins to take cash and favors from Beal.

Beal not only corrupts the man with money and power. He also tempts him with sex. Donna Allan (Audrey Totter), a local barfly and failed actress, is recruited by Beal to be Foster’s assistant and later possible lover. There are some perks that go with working for the devil. Beal gives Donna a huge swank apartment with a full wardrobe. Then he gets her a job working closely with the DA, who eventually falls in lust with her.

Things fall apart quickly for Foster after he’s elected governor. His wife is so distant from him now that she doesn’t show up for his acceptance speech. Beal has also convinced him to sign a contract selling his soul when police come knocking at the D.A.’s door to question him about a murder.

Will Foster be able to rid himself of Beal and return to old and honest ways of doing things?

Milland is always interesting to watch. From his first moment on screen walking out of the fog and into a dockside bar, Milland appears to be having fun. Usually cast as the good guy in films like “The Big Clock”, “Ministry of Fear” and “The Uninvited”, Milland does a charming job in this one not only as the bad guy but also as a second lead to Thomas Mitchell. (Milland would be even more sinister in “Dial M for Murder”)

Mitchell is the star of the film, even though he’s billed third in the credits. With a wide-eyed pudgy face he seems to be the perfect actor to play the everyman honest politician corrupted by a lust for power. Mitchell is no stranger to this story. He was originally cast as Daniel Webster in the 1941 version of “Devil and Daniel Webster”. After suffering a fractured skull during shooting, he was replaced by equally stout Edward Arnold.

The best performance in the film, however, is from film-noir queen Audrey Totter. Totter gets a juicy part as a down-on-her-luck woman who is morphed into a cleaned up professional woman. Her first scene in the film is great. Drunk, loud and chain smoking, Totter gets in a bar room brawl with another woman after calling her “piano legs.” Classic. Beal meets up with her after she’s physically tossed from the bar. Later, she’s seduced by Beal’s words - not to mention a full-length fur coat. One of the best exchanges in the film is when Totter’s having a drunken conversation with a bartender: `What time is it?' `You just asked me that.' `I didn't ask you what I just asked you, I asked you what time it is.' The screenplay is by is by Jonathan Latimer, who also inked “The Glass Key”, “Nocturne”, “They Won't Believe Me”, “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, and “The Big Clock”.

The film, directed by John Farrow (his credits include “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, “His Kind of Woman”, “Where Danger Lives”, and even the quirky “Unholy Wife”) with cinematographer Lionel Lindon (the lens man went on to make “Quicksand”, “Hell’s Island”, “The Turning Point” and later “The Manchurian Candidate”) created an appropriately shadowy dark look for the film. Even the indoor scenes are dank with strange lighting angles.

A few other noir icons make their presence known in the film. The soundtrack is by Franz Waxman. Supporting roles played by George Macready and Fred Clark are entertaining as usual.

This tale about the seduction and fall of a promising politician echoes themes explored in the same year's “All the King's Men” but adds metaphysical dimension. It’s a shame that this one has been almost completely forgotten by film fans.

Written by Steve-O
Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley