Sunday, December 31, 2006

He Walked By Night (1948)

Darker and chillier than a storm drain at midnight, this expertly-crafted thriller from directors Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann; screenwriters John Higgins and Crane Wilbur; and cinematographic master John Alton represents one of the strongest semi-documentary/police procedural noirs - a sub-sub-genre that roughly spanned from 1945's 'The House on 92nd Street' to 1950's 'Union Station' - with 'Walked' arguably being the most sober and nihilistic.

The film's no-frills parallel narrative is divided between hunters and hunted - the L.A.P.D. and a coolly calculating electronics expert/cop killer, respectively. Sought by authorities for the point blank murder of an off-duty officer who had stopped him for questioning, Roy Martin (Richard Basehart) easily makes noir's most malevolent psycho-loners top ten. Fresh from a successful stint on Broadway, Basehart deftly inhabited his darkly charismatic sociopath in a performance that could've very easily slipped into an unintentionally funny stereotype - but the actor keeps it subtle, keeps it real - and single-handedly elevates the film during his self-administered bullet-extraction scene with acting that's nothing less than brilliant.


Tracking Martin on his decidedly cold trail are L.A.P.D.'s finest (Scott 'Canon City' Brady, Roy 'Force of Evil' Roberts, and a skinny Jack Webb - who clearly used 'Walked' as an influence on his later 'Dragnet') who use proto-'C.S.I.' tactics to help narrow their search and expedite the collision course they and the killer are on. With the guidance of technical adviser and actual L.A. cop Marty Wynn, the filmmakers blend dry, clinical police procedure with near-expressionistic cinematography - Alton's chiaroscuro as impressive as it's ever been. The master's low-key lighting, jagged diagonal lines, and claustrophobic compositions a dazzling eye-candy backdrop for the character's deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Though somewhat weakened by razor-thin characterizations, the film's strengths (including a fascinating, uneasy sympathy drawn for the antagonist) are highly rewarding - and it's edge-of-the-seat chase finale in a nearly pitch-black L.A. sewer system a noir tour de force.

Written by Dave

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Holiday (1944)

With the exception of an extended scene which takes place at midnight mass, there’s little here to suggest either Christmas or a holiday. What we have is two stories of lost love and final redemption woven together in a drama/noir under the direction of one of the incomparable masters of noir, Robert Siodmak.

The protagonist in this piece is played by the songbird of Universal, Deanna Durbin. According to reports, Durbin was single handedly responsible for pulling Universal from the grasp of bankruptcy. Seems I’ve seen this same remark applied to everyone from Frankenstein to Abbott and Costello but that’s beside the point. Here Miss Durbin is allowed to forsake her schoolgirl persona and actually display both her ample dramatic talents and cleavage. Seeing them both is a pleasant surprise given her cinematic resume up to this point.

Starring in the role of the homme fatal and also playing against type is the master of acrobatic dance, Gene Kelly. This was an early screen appearance for Kelly and perhaps the powers in Tinseltown had yet to determine in which direction his career would go. If so, with the release of Anchors Aweigh the following year, the point would be moot.

The story unfolds with the receipt of a “Dear John” letter to a newly graduated Army officer (Dean Harens) who hops on the first flight heading west to confront his former lover in San Francisco. Fate steps in to play a hand with foul weather forcing the flight to land in New Orleans to wait out the storm. While drinking away his misery in the hotel bar, the young Lieutenant is visited by a drunken (is there ever any other type) news reporter who also serves as a pimp for the local house of pleasure. Convincing the young officer he can offer a solution to his problems, he gets him to ride out with him to the whorehouse that supplements his reporters pay and keeps him well liquored up.

Arriving at Madame Valerie de Merode’s joint we and the Lt. are introduced to Durbin’s character, the resident canary, Jackie Lamont. Little surprise that with Durbin in the film we’ll of course be “treated” to the obligatory staged musical number found in most noirs of the period. Rather than being the classy numbers we’re accustomed too, here the lighting is bleak and the mood somber. In other words, just what one would expect given the type of establishment and the direction of Siodmak. While others within the place are doing what comes naturally, boozing and hooking up, Jackie and the Lt. decide to attend mass! In an elaborately staged scene in church Jackie breaks down to the point of being inconsolable when the weight of her troubles can no longer be contained. We’re now sure things are not what they appear to be and the Lt.’s problems will soon become secondary to the story about to unfold.

Moving on to an all-night diner Jackie reveals herself to be one Abigail Martin, and tells her story via the staple of noir flashback. The story is one of her meeting and marriage to the lying, gambling, murdering, and generally no good momma’s boy, Robert Monette (Gene Kelly) and his overbearing mother played beautifully restrained by Gale Sondergaard. Suffice to say, Robert turns out not to be the man Abigail fell in love with or more correctly she was blinded by love to the real man he was. As if building a house of cards, one by one the foibles of Robert manifest themselves to the point that the inevitable collapse must occur.

While lacking some of the action we’ve come to expect from noirs, Christmas Holiday nevertheless packs an emotional punch that more than makes up for those missing on the physical side. While Kelly’s adequate here, the real centerpiece here is Durbin in a performance that’s sure to change one’s impression of her talents.

Backing up the stars in addition to Harens, and Sondergaard are a bevy of noir stalwarts; Gladys George, John Hamilton, Oliver Blake, John Berkes and Charles Cane. While not Siodmak’s strongest noir outing (my vote would be for The Killers, while many would opt for Criss Cross) Christmas Holiday is thoroughly entertaining.

Couple of last notes; while Durbin get the opportunity to warble though a couple of songs, Kelly’s not given the same chance to demonstrate his non-parallel dancing talents. That said, in an obvious tongue in cheek move there is a scene in which Kelly asks Durbin to dance. Precisely upon the point of arriving on the dance floor the band concludes the number and the dance never comes off. Lastly, when if came time to hand out the Academy Awards, Christmas Holiday walked away with one Oscar, that for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. With Durbin and Kelly how could it not win something related to music?

Written by Raven

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Lusty Men (1952)

Posted by Curt

The one thing I've always enjoyed about Nicholas Ray's movies are the completely unpredictable things that happen in them. Also, his films have a trait of being on the verge of losing control that always seems to pull me in further to the viewing experience of watching them. The Lusty Men is one of his finest films and also the best rodeo movie ever made imho.

Robert Mitchum plays an ex-rodeo star who no longer is a part of the riding circuit because of a severe injury to his leg after being thrown off a horse. Arthur Kennedy plays a novice cowboy who is new to the world of rodeo riding and he hears about the wonderful skills and talents of Robert Mitchum, so he hires him on as his mentor to teach him the tricks of the trade and to follow him around from one rodeo show to the next to keep him on course. Susan Hayward plays Kennedy's wife and she doesn't want him to get involved with the wild world of rodeo because of all the injuries that happen to the men who do this type of sport for a living. Nonetheless, Kennedy is all fired up about becoming a big time rodeo star and making tons of money, so that him and his wife can go back to Texas and buy a farm there and live a quiet life, once he's ready to retire from the sport. Once Kennedy gets trained in by Mitchum he joins the rodeo circuit and slowly makes his way up the ladder to becoming a star and big money winner in the world of rodeo riding.

Before all this happens though, there's a beautiful and unique scene at the beginning of this film where Robert Mitchum returns to his boyhood home, a small ramshackle and rundown farm in Texas, where we see him get down and crawl underneath the house and he finds a toy six shooter gun that he left there when he was a small boy. Mitchum's parents are long passed away by now, and an old duffer who Mitchum is unfamiliar with owns the place now. The old man, played by Burt Mustin, thinks Mitchum is a thief or some kind of intruder, and he levels his rifle at him. Mitchum raises his hands and shows the old man the toy gun and relates to him why he showed up at this place. This is a very tender and delicate scene, kind of wistful but not in the least bit sentimental.

As I said before, this is one of Nick Ray's very best films, and even if you don't care for rodeo's, the story, acting, and directing are so well done, you can't help but get pulled into the viewing experience of watching it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Man with My Face (1951)

Posted by MackJay

directed by Edward Montagne

Cast: Barry Nelson, Jack Warden, Carole Mathews, Lynn Ainley, Jim Boles, John Harvey
Based on the novel by Samuel W. Taylor
Screenplay by Vin Bogert, Tom McGowan, Edward Montagne and Samuel W. Taylor
Cinematography by Fred Jackman, Jr
Music by Robert McBride

THE MAN WITH MY FACE is a better-than-average B movie with some of the attending convenient plot devices, but enough twists and turns to satisfy most Noir fans. Visually, it has enough Noir style to appear connected to the main Noir cycle. The film's plot fits Noir expectations neatly, and it's only limited by a few B movie
contrivances. With its unusual setting and well-played lead performance, this is a movie deserving a look by all Noir enthusiasts.

Only two well-known names appear in the cast: lead Barry Nelson and Jack Warden (in a very small role). Nelson shows himself to be more than capable in a dual role. He doesn't differentiate the characters terribly much, but plays them both with conviction. There is a timely reference for Barry Nelson too: he was the first James Bond seen on screen by US audiences, in the 1954 TV version of Casino Royale. As Cora, Lynn Ainley is very hard-edged and unsympathetic. Even her final act speech of regret won't soften most viewers toward her. She's a greedy harpie who deserves her fate. Everyone else is just fine in the film, with an interesting appearance by Jack Elam-look alike Jim Boles, as Meadows the doberman trainer. Director Edward Montagne (The Tattooed Stranger) made a mark later in TV sitcoms (especially
McHale's Navy).

Right from the opening credits, it's clear that The Man with My Face will not take place in typical Noir territory. And like many other superior B movies, the locations are used to advantage. The city of San Juan, beaches, hotels and shops contribute a unique look and atmosphere. Several local amateur residents are given small acting roles as well. The final chase sequence appears to have been shot at the decayed Fort San Cristobal. It provides plenty of dark passageways and vertiginous precipices to keep things interesting.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting


The plot is pure Noir, with a fairly original twist. "Chick" Graham (Barry Nelson) works for a small insurance company in San Juan, partnered with his brother-in-law Buster Cox (John Harvey). One day, Chick leaves the office and heads home. When he arrives there, his wife Cora (Lynn Ainley) and her brother claim not to know who he is. The two are very insistent, and even Chick's beloved dog doesn't seem to recognize him. What's going on? A very confused Chick is then stupefied when a man identical to himself (also played by Nelson) walks in and claims to be Chick Graham. Cora threatens to call the police, and in fact does so when the real Chick becomes insistent that the whole thing must be a gag. Poor confused Chick is carted off by San Juan policeman. But he manages to escape when a vicious dobermann meant to attack him instead knocks over the policeman.

Now a familiar Noir narrative begins, as Chick sets out to determine just what has been happening, and who this mysterious Chick #2 can be. Sitting in a hotel bar, Chick (#1) is greeted by a salesman who recognizes him and Chick tells the man to meet him at the office later to help with his investigation. But greed gets the best of the salesman and he cooks up a scheme to blackmail Graham. Unfortunately for him, the salesman proposes his scheme to Chick #2 (now revealed to be a man named Al Grant), who with his henchman makes quick work of the salesman by way of the vicious doberman. So Chick is back to square one. He contacts a former girlfriend he jilted before marrying Cora. The girlfriend, Mary Davis (Carole Mathews) obviously still loves Chick and despite the insistence of her cynical brother (Jack Warden), she agrees to help him solve the mystery. At this point, another woman, Juanita, enters the film, a former romantic associate of Al Grant. Juanita, accosts Chick on the street and angrily insists he come to her apartment. Thinking he will gather more information for his quest, Chick goes along. After convincing Juanita that he is not the man she thinks he is, Chick leaves. Later, poor Juanita is found dead and Chick Graham is the prime suspect for her murder. With his handsome visage on the front page of every San Juan newspaper, Chick really needs to work fast to clear his name. Eventually, Chick and Al meet again, and Al plans to kill Chick so that Al and Cora can flee on the next plane, and later collect her insurance payment for her husband's death. Fortunately, Chick outsmarts even the tenacious dobermann left to guard him. He escapes and, after a very effective chase sequence, manages to expose the criminals for what they are.

The Man with My Face has a combination of the "wrong man" theme (best seen in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man) and the doppelganger idea (exemplified in The Scar). The film has a strongly Noir sense of oppression, felt mainly in the narrative and not supported very much by the visual style. It's a well-done B movie with some exciting episodes and a fine performance by Barry Nelson. A worthy submission to any B-Noir catalog.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

Written by Siglo XX

Director: George Marshall

Tamed by a brunette - framed by a blonde - blamed by the cops!

With a tagline like that, who needs any explanation that The Blue Dahlia is bound to be a classic? Don’t take my word for it; if you haven’t yet seen this noteworthy film, you owe it to yourself to beg, borrow or steal a copy today.

Perhaps overlooked by some, and shamefully not out as an official DVD release, The Blue Dahlia is the original Hollywood Noir Dahlia (referring to ‘a nightclub on the strip’); not to be confused with the present-day film, focusing on The Black Dahlia Murder Case in Los Angeles, Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), which some have indicated doesn’t quite inspire as a film.


One of the tragedies for The Blue Dahlia is that it was released in the same year as The Big Sleep, which tended to overshadow its significance.

Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) returns home from the war in the South Pacific, and finds his wife, Helen (Doris Dowling) with another man (Eddie Harwood, played by Howard Da Silva). In a Noir film, this can only lead to one thing: the wife is going to die; and the husband is going to have the rap placed squarely on his shoulders for her murder, or at least give the circumstances some consideration while on the lamb. Johnny knows he has to prove his innocence or possibly face the chair. Enter Joyce Haywood (Veronica Lake), who just so happens to be the ex-wife of Johnny’s recently deceased wife’s lover. How convenient. Is she to be the frame while playing the alluring vixen? Someone throw in the towel for poor Johnny. Joyce is turning on the charm throughout.

Buzz Wanchek (William Bendix) and George Copeland (Hugh Beaumont) play Johnny’s buddies, also fresh home from the war. Buzz scraps some action in the first scene, and Bendix is no small fry when playing the heavy in Noir roles, supporting or otherwise. You simply have to love a film that starts off with some deliberate tension, indirectly related to the plot, just to establish a character.

Script writing by Raymond Chandler (script or novel credits for Strangers on a Train, Lady in the Lake, The Big Sleep, Murder My Sweet, Double Indemnity, Farewell My Lovely and Time to Kill), brings the occasional cracker-jack style to the dialog, lending a quickened pace to the film. Chandler was nominated for an Academy Award for this ‘can’t fix it without plenty of alcohol’ screenplay, with a few notable lines below:

Johnny’s (played by Alan Ladd), ‘You got the wrong lipstick on, Mister’, followed by a crack to Eddie’s (played by Howard Da Silva) jaw; after finding out Eddie was his wife’s lover, bring Johnny’s emotions directly to the surface, as any man might be prone to under the circumstances.

Joyce’s (played by Veronica Lake) ‘Well, you could get wetter if you laid down in the gutter’, to Johnny as he resists entering her car in a cats and dogs downpour.

Buzz’s (played by William Bendix), ‘Baloney! If you think we’re going to help you tie a murder to a guy who’s flown us through 112 missions, you’re off your nut!’ in response to Capt. Hendrickson’s (played by Tom Powers) questions regarding the murder. There’s something about Buzz that isn’t altogether there. Film at Eleven.

A boozing, blackmailing house detective (‘Dad’ Newell, played by Will Wright) round out the supporting cast nicely.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake are no neophytes to the Noir genre, and their chemistry works well in yet another Paramount Studio setting. One might even go so far as to say Ladd just about made a career out of Noir and other Crime films, though not quite on par with the likes of Dick Powell. This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key are seminal favorites of the Noir Ladd/Lake combo; both films released in 1942, and among personal Noir favorites of many. If anyone could blame Ladd for often having his arm around Lake’s slender frame, they’d have to have their head examined. Just don’t let Buzz know you made the appointment; and you’d better stop playing that monkey music.

Cinematographer, Lionel Lindon, may not be a household name to everyone, though he’s done work on several spectacular 60’s John Frankenheimer films, such as Grand Prix (1966), All Fall Down (1962), and The Young Savages (1961); as well as some earlier Noir/Drama material: Quicksand (1950), Without Honor (1949), Alias Nick Beal (1949). Not a shabby resume, though I’d have personally preferred a bit more play with shadow and light in some scenes. Perhaps a restored print would flesh out more contrast. One can only hope.

The result is an enjoyable Noir/Drama/Mystery, with a bourbon shot for a chaser and a bit of whodunit thrown in for measure. The only question is whether Bendix steals the show from Ladd, given his fine character portrayal of Buzz. If you can find it, The Blue Dahlia is definitely worth a visit.

Bourbon straight, with a bourbon chaser.

Two separate glasses. Get it?

Did somebody say something about a drink?

Monday, December 04, 2006

All the King's Men (1949)

Posted by Ox

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

So wrote Lord Acton in a letter in 1887, and that might be a good capsule description of this excellent movie which garnered several Academy awards and many nominations in 1950. I've never read Robert Penn Warren's novel,but intend to do so after watching the movie.

It has to be sort of a borderline Noir, although Spencer Selby's bookplaces it in the Noir canon. The style of the movie is sort of semi-documentary, with the story being told mostly through the eyes of Jack Burden (John Ireland), a newspaperman who became a "true believer" in Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) when he was a poor but honest (and ultimately unsuccessful) County Treasurer candidate several years before running for Governor.

The terrible thing is that Willie Stark originally entered politics to do things for his constituency, but too soon found out that compromises had to be made in order to attain elective office. And once having made those compromises, he became more and more corrupt and ruthless, relying on his natural public appeal and a good line of populist BS to keep him in power.

But all this had a price. His "true believers" became repulsed and sickened by the decline in his morals and ethics, and by their own complicity in the deeds which had to be done to keep him in power.

It's a very powerful movie, and has a number of strong and memorable performances. Broderick Crawford won an Oscar and a Golden Globe as Best Leading Actor, and newcomer Mercedes McCambridge also won both as Best Supporting Actress. Robert Rossen won for best picture, and John Ireland was nominated for best Supporting Actor. There were many other nominations besides those listed above.

I recommend this movie very highly to all Noir fans!

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