Sunday, February 25, 2007

In Cold Blood (1967)

Posted by Curt

The neo-noir movie, In Cold Blood, is an extremely, hypnotic realistic account of the senseless, random murders of an innocent Kansas family by two young killers (Blake & Wilson), who believe the Clutters have a huge amount of money in ther home and erupt into a blazing amount of violence when they find this is not so. In his brilliant adapation of Truman Capote's superb nonfiction novel, director Richard Brooks coaxed magnificent performances from a generally unknown cast and with intriguing black-and-white visuals from Conrad Hall created a graphic and unsettling film experience. The movie traces the pattern of aimlessness and grandiose fantasies of riches characterizing the lives of ex-convicts Perry Smith (Blake) and Dick Hicock (Wilson).

The tension builds slowly and evenly, after all, we do know the outcome to the horrible climax, the nightmare we all have had as we lie in bed at night. Film critics were harsh with this movie when they critized the objective treatment of the victims, the Clutter family, decent people who are seen without any humanizing qualities that would have made their deaths ever more shocking. But in fact, the filming of their rapid, gruesome slaughter is a stunning cinematic coup. In harsh, silent strokes, we watch the carnage through blood-splattered walls, outstretched limbs and violently firm strokes of a knife. This is an outstanding neo-noir film, easily the most powerful one ever made by director Richard Brooks. For those of you who haven't seen it yet, I urge you to do so, it will be well worth your time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Backfire (1950)

Film noir from the classic period often deals with returning servicemen trying to cope with life after the military. Sometimes the protagonist is injured or even suffering from some sort of amnesia. Other times, the vet just is having a hard time returning to civilian life. There are many examples of men suffering some sort of dislocation including The Crooked Way, Dead Reckoning, Nobody Lives Forever and Backfire.

Backfire is a 1950 film shot by Warner Brothers in 1948. The film, although produced by a major studio, is in the B-movie mold. The stars, with the exception of Virginia Mayo, are not on WB’s star list. Also most of the plot is lifted from other, many times better, films. But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it. I found the film an entertaining mystery with a flashback structure (a number of people telling their side of the story from their point of view) that I thought was reminiscent of “The Killers”.

I’m not going to go into the plot too much in detail but it begins nicely. A returning serviceman is in a California VA hospital recovering from over a dozen spinal injuries. While there he falls in love with his nurse (Mayo) and begins to make plans with his Army friend Steve (Edmond O’Brien) to buy a ranch when he is finally released.

While stuck in bed for months Cowboy looses touch with Steve and begins to have nightmares that his army buddy is in danger. While doped up on pain killers one night he’s even visited by Steve’s mysterious lounge-singer girlfriend (Viveca Lindfors doing a sexy Ingrid Bergman impression) who tells him that his future ranch partner is now too suffering from back injuries. Even worse he’s suicidal. Cowboy passes out before he can find out how to get in touch with him.

Things start looking better when he gets a telegram from Steve telling him all is well. The good news lasts about five minutes. He’s released from the hospital with plans to spend a romantic weekend with Mayo at a local swank motel. Bob’s weekend plans are scrubbed when he’s picked up by cops not fifty steps from the hospital exit and taken to the homicide division. There he’s told that his best friend is the suspect in the killing of a high-profile gambler and is on the lam. Cowboy sets out to try to find his friend and clear Steve’s name.

The cast is fine in this one. Mayo gets top billing, but really it’s Gordon MacRae’s film. MacRae is unknown to me but apparently he’s famous for appearing in a number of colorful musicals. (That’s probably why I’ve never seen him before) He plays Bob “Cowboy” Corey as a naive but determined man out to solve a mystery. Mayo plays the good girl in this one, like she did in Red Light released a year before. Noir fans will be happy to see O’Brien, Dane Clark (one of their army buddies) and Richard Rober. Ed Begley plays the police chief as he did in about every other film of this type. He does get the best line, however. When a cop begins firing at a fleeing suspect in a crowded street. Begley grabs the policeman’s arm and says, “Stop. You might hit a tax payer!”

The film includes some interesting camera work at a seedy downtown hotel. I like the performances by the actors playing the maid and hotel clerk. Look out for the camera view through a keyhole.

Other notable scenes include a shooting of a man in his living room. The scene is shot nicely from the outside of the house. Near the end, in another stand-out scene, the killer is foiled in an unsuspected way.

One last note: I like to read Bosley Crowther's reviews at the New York Times. I was reminded this week of a very negative review for “Gilda” when the film first came out. Here’s his complete review for Backfire dated January 27, 1950:

A very terse observation is all that "Backfire" deserves, in view of the feeble detonation of this Warner mystery drama at the Globe. Telling a most unlikely story of a young man who casually proves that his best friend, suspected of murdering a gambler, did not do the job, it rambles from one small coincidence to another without style or suspense until finally it puts a listless finger upon the fellow who did the deed. And even though several nice young people, including Gordon MacRae and Edmond O'Brien, are involved, the most that can possibly be said for them is that they get the thing done.

In this case, the title is descriptive of the effort expended by all. A short and sweet observation covers "Backfire": It does!

Written by Steve-O

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Big Clock (1948)

Written by Tim (aka Mappin and Webb Ltd.)

If there is one thing I learned from Ray Milland’s most famous performance, it’s that a booze bender makes for a great narrative. Milland’s Oscar winning role in The Lost Weekend was as one of film history’s most memorable and voracious alcoholics. Battling his personal bacchant demons, as well as the people trying to sober him up, made for a great movie (especially when flying bats are hallucinated). In director John Farrow’s The Big Clock we know that Milland may find himself in trouble again because of lady liquor after he is fired from his job and confides that the first thing he is going to do is “have a good stiff couple of drinks.” In this film he ties one on with the wrong woman, in the wrong place and as the title may allude, at the wrong time. The fatal result is a murder committed in the heat of passion. What follows is an unconventional cat and mouse story that pits Milland and Charles Laughton against each other and the stakes are a reserved seat at the state penitentiary’s electric chair. Using a phony murder suspect as the bait to get the drop on one another, Farrow, Laughton and Milland deliver the suspense goods in spades. As the seconds tick away and the tension is ratcheted up, the film’s big question is which character will walk away with their life, and which will take the long walk to the chair.

Ray Milland’s character George Stroud is the lead editor of Janoth Publication’s most popular weekly periodical titled “Crimeways.” This magazine is renowned, as Milland’s dubs it, for being “the country’s police blotter.” This magazine’s success is due largely to George Stroud’s uncanny knack for finding criminals who don’t want to be found. This method Stroud innovates is called the “System of Irrelevant Clues” where the suspect of the investigation du-jour is essentially profiled as to their likes, dislikes, proclivities and other tendencies that could aid in their apprehension (as the moniker suggests, apparently the Police believe these same clues are irrelevant!?) This is indeed a handy skill for a criminal investigative journalist and Stroud has parlayed it into a very successful career. His success however comes with a steep price and the tag reads: marriage on the rocks. Due to his numerous hours spent at the “Crimeways” office, Stroud is rarely available for his wife and five year old son. Georgette Stroud (Maureen O'Sullivan) later tells her husband that she thinks that he married the magazine instead of her.


George Stroud’s marital discord is of no concern to Charles Laughton’s character of media giant Earl Janoth. Janoth’s only concerns seem to be making money, having his employees under his thumb and his obsession with clocks and punctuality. His mistress Pauline York (played by Rita Johnson) is on very shaky terms with Janoth and we glean that she is using him for his money. In return she is a nice bit of eye candy he can dangle on his arm. Laughton is fantastic as the automaton mogul, who is equally concerned with how to increase readership by the tens of thousands and micromanage his business by ruthlessly pinching pennies. This is hilariously demonstrated when Janoth tells his assistant that, “On the fourth floor, in a broom closet, the bulb has been burning for several days. Find the man responsible and dock his pay.” George Stroud however is fed up with his family taking a back seat to the magazine and Laughton. He is determined to finally take a long overdue vacation with his wife and son. Janoth has other ideas for Stroud and gives him an ultimatum; either he stays and helps with a big story he just broke, or is fired and blackballed by Janoth. Stroud has reached his limit and chooses the latter. Before he goes to the train station to meet his wife and son for their belated honeymoon/vacation he decides to celebrate his new found freedom by enjoying cocktails with Pauline, his now ex-employer’s mistress.

Her invitation for drinks is under the pretence of pooling their collective dirt on Janoth for some payback. Several dozen Stingers later, the evening has degenerated into quite a drinking binge. George misses his train and he wakes up in Pauline’s apartment on the couch later in the evening after passing out (no husband of the year award for him). With a hearty hangover he’s quickly pushed out the door by Pauline as she sees Janoth on his way up to her apartment for an unexpected visit. George goes down the building’s stairway but not before Janoth steps off the elevator and notices someone (Milland) leaving her apartment. Earl Janoth questions Pauline as to the identity of the person leaving her apartment and she makes up a phony name of “Jefferson Randolph.” Janoth keeps pressing her, and still tipsy, she levels some very scathing words at him. Her words inflame him and in the heat of the moment, he brains her upside the head with a sundial paperweight and kills her. Janoth flees the scene and soon after confides the murder to his loyal lead crony Steve Hagen (George Macready). Hagen takes charge and decides to go back to the scene of the crime. He eliminates Pauline’s apartment of any clues his boss left and begins laying the groundwork to frame this mysterious Jefferson Randolph for the murder, who in fact is Ray Milland’s character George Stroud. Janoth calls Stroud on his vacation the next day and tells him he needs his skills and the “Crimeways” reporters to track down this Jefferson Randolph, seen leaving Pauline’s apartment the night of her murder as he is a chief suspect. George knows that this is person is in fact himself. He must return to New York to obscure the trail to the fictional Randolph as it will definitely lead him into a world of trouble with the authorities and his wife.

This implausible scenario sets up the movie’s real goods which consist of an unconventional cat and mouse game where the lines between prey and predator are crossed and re-crossed by Laughton and Milland. George Stroud is using his profiling technique of tracking down people to theoretically track down himself. Not only does he have to foil this process and thwart his magazines staff employing it, he also must appear to be helping this process when in reality he is trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, especially Janoth. His bender with Pauline has left behind a long trail of clues and witnesses that saw them together during her final evening. In particular Elsa Lanchester (Charles Laughton’s real life spouse) gives a great performance as a daffy artist who is one of these witnesses that Milland must keep away from Laughton and the “Crimeways” investigative team. As the noose tightens around George Stroud, Janoth and Hagen begin to piece together that the mysterious Jefferson Randolph is Stroud. Stroud knows that Janoth must have been the one to kill Pauline but he can’t point the finger just yet as the clues point to Jefferson Randolph, and in turn, himself.

The plot (which I have whittled down believe it or not) is fairly intricate and has some nice twists throughout the film to keep it interesting. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer (“The Glass Key” “Nocturne”) also punches up the script with some crisp and clever dialogue keeping the film feeling brisk and not bogged down by the complex plot. Milland’s performance is great as he runs the spectrum of behavior from a sort of affable cockiness in the beginning, to severe anxiety as the suspense builds. Charles Laughton is simply amazing as always. His Janoth character is a detestable autocrat, yet his rakish behavior coupled with a vermouth dry sense of humor makes him the core delight of the film.

The most impressive visual aspect of the film is by far the camerawork. The camera moves about the characters and their surroundings with flair and grace but does so without making the viewer too conscious of its presence. Upon our introduction to Charles Laughton’s character, the camera follows him around his executive boardroom table where he slowly encircles his seated sycophantic executives pitching ideas to him on how to increase readership. As he dismisses their ideas one by one he sits down at the head of the enormous table only to soon after get up and leave the meeting. Through Farrow’s tracking shot of Laughton, we follow his every move in this scene as if the camera was mimicking the eyes of his underlings, examining the every move of their exacting executive. Farrow’s selection of shots are stylish and keep the viewer visually engaged, however, he ultimately respects the potency of the script and the cast’s ability to deliver its dramatic goods. Because of these strengths, the director is able to interject visual verve to the film through his tasty camerawork, yet it never feels like a crutch or a distraction.

The Big Clock” is a taught, lean little thriller which has the right mix of suspense, humor, action and twists to keep your eyes on the screen. Much more enjoyable upon second viewing as I appreciated the screenplay’s cleverness more where as the first time I was really involved in the solid performances. It’s worth taking in when you get the opportunity.

-Tim M.

The Big Clock” Tidbits: Harry (Henry) Morgan plays Laughton’s muscle in the film but never utters a line…It was nominated for an Edgar Allen Poe award for Best Motion Picture in 1949…The film was remade in 1987 and re-titled “No Way Out.” It starred Kevin Costner, Sean Young and Gene Hackman as the heavy. I have no idea if the remake was good as I refuse to lose any more time in my life watching Costner “act.”

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Posted by Paulcito

Meet the Harpers of Balboa, California. Meet Mrs. Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett), All-American housewife, who hops into the family sedan in the film's first frames for a unexpected drive to Los Angeles. Before we've even met the rest of the Harper family "team", Lucia drives us straight into noirsville, to a seedy L.A. cocktail joint-cum-gambling hall. She is geared for a confrontation with her daughter Bea's pimpish older boyfriend, "ex-art dealer" (and really, is there anything worse than being an EX-art dealer?) Ted Darby. Darby bemusedly admits to mother, almost apologetically, that he needs money. Just a little handout, that's all, and he'll disappear from the scene.

Here, it seems, we have another family noir in the Lynchian mode, where all is not well in suburbia and bad things will happen in Balboa. Or so we hope. But as the de rigueur noir voice-over fades away, to never return, in the first moments of Lucia's trip, so too should your expectations that this will be another potboiler by the book. Director Max Ophüls makes this film interesting by going through the noir melodrama motions only to swerve away, for better AND worse, from the expected action, and take a dig at the American Dream. The movie tempts us down certain well-trod noir roads only to defy the cliché each time in little ways.

Its Christmas-time and daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks (best known in noir circles for her role in Possessed), is that middle-class species of girl who has opted for art school instead of college; Darby is her art school discovery, but she insists to Mom it's no "nasty love affair". Returning from L.A., Lucia discovers the whole family is curious about her mysterious drive and she confronts Bea about Darby. Bea, who is crushing hard, will have none of it. Mr. Harper is nowhere to be seen, a traveling architect relegated in this film to a telephonic presence who is no more than a few phone calls. This film is all Joan Bennett's. Son David (David Bair) is a gee-whiz teenager, only interested in car engines and little post modern ironies, at one point he exclaims, "I'm a growing boy, I need my rest!" The household is completed by live-in maid and confidante Sybil (an uncredited Frances E. Williams) and Lucia's retiree father, the elder Mr. Harper.

You might think at this point that we are entering Mildred Pierce territory, where Mom will struggle frantically to avoid her daughter's downfall at Darby's hands, but Ophüls has other plans. During a boathouse assignation with Teddy that same night, Bea hears Darby admit that Mom was right, he does want moolah, and how. Darby, an interesting Shepperd Strudwick, is a rakish cad, tall and yet somehow not physically menacing. Strudwick's other noir credentials included Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, Chicago Deadline, Strange Triangle, and All The King's Men, though he was better known as a television character actor.

But he has sorely underestimated teenybopper Bea, who, in a fit of anger, slaps him good (twice!) and then is further inspired to brain him with her flashlight. Poor Darby. He staggers after her, hoping romantically to explain they both can use the cash, when the concussion overcomes him and he topples off the pier and onto a submerged anchor. He's all washed up. The next morning that is, when Mrs. Bennett, awake at dawn and too nervous to sleep, discovers his body neatly tangled under their pier.

One supposes the dispatching of Ted Darby is the titular Reckless Moment, but perhaps that honor belongs to Lucia Harper: like any good noir hausfrau, she decides to drag the corpse out to the power boat and goes looking for swampy new digs for Darby's remains while the town church bells chime ominously in the distance.

And here comes Ophüls curve ball number two: after Lucia anchors Darby but good in the murky deep - doesn't every planned community in California have a convenient swamp across the highway? -- we expect a police procedural: the police are trolling the local waters and the town is abuzz with the murder (Darby's body washes up of course, anchor notwithstanding). Look for a young William Schallert as the police lieutenant. But this film is interested less in solving the crime than in tracking Joan Bennett's reaction to it all. Ophüls has a masterful way of letting the melodrama speak for itself, and Bennett's nervous reactions to each setback are naturally acted. Bennett has none of the moll-ishness on display here that made her a femme fatale in Scarlet Street or Woman in the Window. All of Bennett's really tormented scenes are played straight, as she sobs on her bed, smokes like mad, or makes surreptitious phone calls at the local pharmacy booth. The use of moody noir music is judicious and cinematographer Burnett Guffey keeps Balboa shadowy and windy, showing the adept hand that won him an Academy Award for From Here to Eternity. Pace and emotion are provided by Ophüls trademark long takes and tracking shots. All this combines to give the film an understated, steady realism and nervous air which helps bring home the always comforting noir message that, even in suburbia, you are only a well-placed anchor tip away from homicide.

One reviewer described this style as a "deliberate tossing away of obvious opportunities for suspense and emotional climaxes" - but Ophüls is more interested in subtly indicting middle-class America's fatuousness than grinding out a crime suspenser. As always, his preferred theme is entrapment, both social and romantic. Ophüls at the time was best known for 1948's Letter From an Unknown Woman with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, and it was his European sensibility that Columbia wanted when they hired him. He had just made his other noir foray, Caught, at MGM, also starring James Mason. Producer Walter Wanger, who was married to Joan Bennett at the time, wanted her to star and then got both Mason and Ophüls. However, a noir melodrama released at Christmas wasn't what the public wanted, and Ophüls returned to France in the 50s to make such classics as Earrings of Madame de..., La Ronde, and Lola Montès. The Reckless Moment was his last film stateside.

The next twist comes in the form of Martin Donnolly (James Mason), as the nicest sting-running Irishman you ever met. It seems Donnely and his silent menace of a partner -- the ominous Mr. Nagel -- have previously extorted daughter Bea's jailbait love letters from the hapless Darby. Donnolly shows up in Balboa to extort 5Gs out of Lucia in exchange for keeping the letters from the police and press. With her husband Tom out of town, Lucia has no choice but to give in to his demands, and brings him along on a desperate quest to raise the money that takes them from bank to loan office to pawn shop.

Mason's Irishman is a stoic piece of work - he seems from the very start to be making love to Joan rather than extorting her. He accompanies her shopping and even invites her to lunch, all the while drilling her laconically for the hush-hush money. But Ophüls doesn't lead us there either, there is no temptation that Lucia will cheat on Berlin-bound hubby Tom.

Mason sees her small town existence as "a prison", but she sets her teeth and never answers his overture. Her home life defines her, eternally preoccupied with her children's rolled-up sleeves and presence at breakfast and dinner. Donnoly's words are just spoken failure, his longing for the things he never had, or can have, because he always was "the bad one." Mason's role here is wonderfully nuanced and for me was quite different from his incursion in Caught.

After an anxious weekend trying to get the money and safeguard Bea's innocence, Lucia can see Mason is head over heels for her. He even offers to get half the cash for Nagel himself and drops the threats when another of Darby's cronies is arrested on suspicion of murder. But nasty puppetmaster Nagel steps in, disgusted with Donnolly's weakness toward Mrs. Harper, and the film ends in a boathouse confrontation between the two men. Nagel, a forgettable Roy Roberts, never exudes the full menace he should.

When Nagel finally gets it, Mason laments, "He was better than I was - he had no illusions about himself." In true noir fashion, the murderous thug is the ones with hopes and shattered dreams and Mom and daughter kill and cover it up. Without giving away the end, we find Donnolly sacrificing himself so the Harpers of Balboa can go back to their home life, the reckless moment forgotten in the glow of a blue Christmas tree and middle class security.

Reckless Moment, based on the short story The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, was remade in 2001 as The Deep End, a neo-noir retelling with Tilda Swinton in Bennett's role. Reckless Moment is available on a crisply restored Columbia R2 DVD that was released in the UK in September 2006.

A reckless moment:

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