Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Cry in the Night (1956)

Film versus Novel

Posted by HJ

Owen Clark (Richard Anderson) and a lovely teen-aged Liz Taggart (Natalie Wood) are parked in Lover's Lane when Anderson is startled by the sound of a "peeping Tom." He tries to chase the intruder and is slugged with a lunch bucket by the intruder, leaving Liz free to be abducted!

Her captor is portrayed by Raymond Burr, who would become suave and handsome Perry Mason just a year later. His character is Harold Loftus, a 32-year-old mentally handicapped and socially retarded man with a clinging and overbearing mother, and is understandably attracted to the lovely Liz Taggart, whose father is a tough cop named Dan Taggart (Edmond O'Brien).

Captain Ed Bates (Brian Donlevy), the commander of the night shift at the police station, is pressured by Taggart to find his missing daughter after the dazed Owen Clark is found by a patrol car inspecting Lovers Lane. Owen Clark is initially thought to be just a drunk after an attempt by another couple in Lovers Lane to revive him with some booze leaves him smelling like a distillery, but the police Doctor (Peter Hansen) realizes that Clark is just concussed and that Clark's car and girlfriend are both missing.

In my opinion the most impressive character in this movie is Raymond Burr's Harold Loftus. To me the character is a mixture of Lenny ("Of Mice and Men") and Bo Svenson's 1973 made-for-TV "sympathetic" Frankenstein monster characterization. Loftus is genuinely frightening violent psycho who can switch from one personality to the other at the drop of a hat. Raymond Burr's dramatic ability and large expressive eyes make him a well-chosen actor to portray Harold Loftus. He's just a big somewhat retarded guy whose contacts with women have been limited by his possessive and overbearing mother, and any attraction he has felt to women nearer his own age has resulted either in his rejection and embarrassment by the women or browbeating by Mom Loftus.

O'Brien and Donlevy both do a fine job with their roles, but make no mistake: This was Raymond Burr's movie! Natalie Wood (age 18 when this movie was made, I believe) shows promise of the fine actress she would become, but she's primarily there to furnish her beauty and appeal, of which there is plenty!

I recently bought and read the novel by Whit Masterson from which this movie was made. The relationship between the two is substantial, but there are a lot of significant differences.

In the book, Loftus is a married man with a whiny and unattractive wife, and his mother doesn't figure much in the plot. And rather than the somewhat retarded "Mama's boy" of the movie, Loftus is a frustrated would-be rapist who really hasn't thought out his capture of the girl and subsequent activities very well. His short-term planning is frustrated by unexpected events.

The Liz Taggart character, who tries to "handle" the "retarded" Loftus in the movie spends almost all of the book unconscious and figures very little other than as a lust object for the would-be rapist Loftus. And her boyfriend Owen Clark in the book wants very much to participate in the rescue of Liz, but is despised and kept out of the action by Dan Taggart.

So, basically the outline of the novel is retained by the movie but the specifics are altered quite a bit to make maximum use of the emerging star Raymond Burr and the beautiful and very promising Natalie Wood.

In my opinion, a very worthwhile movie, but also an interesting novel. Both are worth a visit!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Chinatown (1974)

Editor's note: Chinatown from 1974 is structured much like a classic film noir detective story with some key difference. The protagonist J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is no Philip Marlowe. He's a tasteless, classless gumshoe that will do anything for a buck. Also, the story Gittes slowly unravels -- after a number of dead ends and beatings -- leads us to one darkly disturbing end. It's a film that sticks with you forever and is correctly considered a great film.

I asked writer David N. Meyer if we could use his excellent article on Chinatown from his book A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video.Although the book is out of date when it comes to film noir released on home video (boy has the DVD revolution been good to noir fans), the book is filled with some excellent articles about classic and neo-noir. Published in 1998, the book is still a must read.

By David N. Meyer

Director: Roman Polanski; Camera: John A. Alonzo; Screenplay: Robert Towne
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John Hillerman, Burt Young, Diane Ladd

Plot: A Private eye with a tragic past is hired to shadow a philandering husband. The job turns phony, and the husband ends up dead. The P.I. Falls into a web of intrigue as he falls in love with the dead guy's rich, smooth widow. Dealing with her sinister dad, the P.I. learns the conflicts of adult love and the high price of civic progress.

The perfect film?

Robert Towne's script is a puzzle-box of mystery and dread that slowly opens to reveal unsuspected, ever more disturbing vistas. A mystery becomes a love story that unveils a murder that fuels a tale of urban piracy that becomes a treatise on the endurance of evil. Among the many perfections of the script are the steady, suspenseful pacing and the careful layering of clues that, on first viewing, are unrecognizable as such. Indeed, the viewer never fully grasps what the interlocking threads conceal until the story's climax. We then experience the same helpless understanding as the hero.

Nicholson plays a would-be tough-ass, a half-bright guy who reinvents himself after a devastating experience in “Chinatown,” a physical and spiritual neighborhood of tragic ambiguity and futility. Bearing his smirking facade of world-weariness lake a shield, Nicholson considers himself a man who understands the city and his place therein. But his brittle shell of cynicism provides insufficient armor in the private clubs where the real power resides. Driven by memories of his previous failure, Nicholson finally abandons his pose, succumbs to sincerity, and acts from his heart. When he does, he's doomed.

Faye Dunaway at first appears to be a noir Black Widow. With her red lipstick, lace hat, and elegant cool, she seems the ultimate seducer-destroyer. In one of many superb twists, Towne reveals Dunaway to be an innocent, a victim. Her love scene with Nicholson suggests a woman more vulnerable and kind than Nicholson's cynical view of her.

Capable of kindness, yes, but in the end, far tougher than Nicholson. Just as her icy sophistication conceals her vulnerability, her vulnerability masks an iron will. When Dunaway finally reveals her secret, her contempt for Nicholson's shock and confusion is plain. Their roles reverse in an instant, and Nicholson finds her pity for him intolerable. Stung, he wrecks himself seeking her salvation.

The casting of John Huston - the director of The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon - reflects Polanski's daring and his love of classic American movies. Huston's open-faced, garrulous malevolence symbolizes the city he rules. His smile equals the nonstop sunshine, and his sudden lurches into Lear-like dominance make him one of the scariest, most real and memorable villains in the subculture.

Polanski rejects the classic setting of looming cityscapes and rain-soaked streets. There isn't a single skyscraper, shadow, or dominant vertical line in the film. Polanski frames his story at eye level to remind us that the real menace lurks in the hearts and minds of characters. Polanski's Los Angeles is a flat plain parched by drought and baked by the merciless sunshine. John A. Alonzo shoots the city in tones of browns and washed-out yellows, the colors of too much sun and not enough water. Light saturates every face, but only makes the truth harder to discern. The sunlight blinds us, as it blinds Nicholson, into thinking that this shadowless city could be understood at a glance.

A cinema structuralist par excellence, a self-proclaimed disciple of Orson Welles, Polanski understands America's invisible class warfare as only a foreigner can. He determinedly depressive aesthetic provided the completely downbeat ending. Towne preferred a different close, one that offered a glimmer of hope and a more literal sense of history. Polanski knew better.


Monday, September 10, 2007

The Man I Love (1947)

Posted by JeffMarkham

The Man I Love may not even be a true noir, every character in this story has a clear control over their fate and by each's own choice decides to go down an unhappy road, no fate or bad luck comes into play for these individuals. It lacks the hard boiled style of a Phil Karlson picture, and for that matter, how surprising is it to see that it's director happens to be Raoul Walsh, the Raoul Walsh who gave us the raw and realistic They Drive by Night (also featuring Lupino and co-star Alan Hale) and the brutal, ultra hard boiled gangster-noir hybrid White Heat. Who'd have thought that, for a director who seems to save any sort of sentimentality until his films final moments, would give us a whole picture full of characters whom only seemed to have felt melancholy, wistfulness, and regret? This is not the noir of the class of Spillane, nor is it of some sort of poetic tragedy like that of Out of the Past, but this is like something out of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting, all about a group of unhappy people in the big city...and if that isn't as noir as the former two, what is?

The film begins in some nightclub in New York City, decked out in WB’s signature set-design/lighting style, where a few ‘crazies’ play the title song in an after-hours jam session. In my favorite introduction of hers, Ida Lupino enters the frame smoking a cigarette (in a way only she could do) belting out the Gershwin tune with that wonderful booze soaked voice of hers (well, almost, she’s dubbed by Peg La Centra, but it’s very close to her raspy smoldering singing voice in Road House and Private Hell 36), walking around giving the band members a drag of her cig. This scene’s worth the price of admission of the film alone, Ida’s never been as world weary and seductive (singing as if she’s singing to each band member just with him in mind), and we find out a minute later her character lives up to her rendition of that song: she’s running away from New York City and seeking temporary refuge at her family’s place in San Francisco. It’s never made clear what she’s running away from, because Petey’s far too cool and collected to let any of her guard down.


Enter her family in San Francisco, and what a surprise to see who her sisters are, WB’s two other contract femme fatales, Martha Vickers and Andrea King! Of course, these two women who were bad to the bone in The Big Sleep and Ride the Pink Horse couldn’t be any more wholesome than they are here. Ginny (Vickers) spends her time locked in their apartment baby sitting the rotten Dolores Moran’s twin babies, or waiting for the opportunity. Andrea King is dressed up in full hausfrau garb as Sally, spending the majority of the film more or less cleaning and remaining faithful to her husband that’s institutionalized, fending off advances of nightclub owner/racketeer Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda), whose got the fourth and most crooked family member, Joe, rapped up doing dirty work. When Petey hears of this man who couldn’t be more predatory to her sister and corrupting her brother, what does the feistiest member of the family do? Well what any other normal sister would do, go after the guy, become his girl, and get a job as a singer at his nightclub!

But as it turns out, Nicky really is not the man Petey loves. ‘Commitment’ is not apart of either’s vocabulary, and matters only worse when Nicky more and more wants to own the wild and free Petey as his prize trophy of the many mistresses he keeps around his club (including Moran). Petey, in the meanwhile, finds, as if for the first time, someone whom she can love selflessly. That is in the form of San Thomas, played by Bruce Bennett in what has to be his best performance. San is a dark, brooding musician haunted by a woman and his past, a kindred spirit who Petey can easily connect to. But whereas Petey moves begins a new life time and time again, San wanders aimlessly still feeling pain of the heartbreak a woman once caused him. Though the plot attempts to veer back into crime territory as Nicky, Joe, and Gloria become increasingly problematic (and one has to be dealt with), the relationship between these two drifters is far more the interesting story.

This film is unlike any noir I’ve seen even though it lacks anything particularly outrageous. This is basically a character study of characters unhappy with their lives and yet unwilling to grow. Ginny refuses to leave the house and has no interest to date men of any kind (even though many would give her the perfect domestic lifestyle this character seeks), including Gloria’s gentle and weak husband Johnny who seems to take an interest in her. Gloria is young and seeks a fast life of fun, but she couldn’t have made two bigger mistakes: to get married and have kids. Johnny himself is completely head over heels for this femme fatale who walks all over him. Joe isn’t cut out for a life of crime as he lacks the guts to do any real kind dirty work (and yellows out when given the opportunity), but still fancies himself as a tough hood to the end. The only two level headed characters may be Sally and (by the film’s end) Johnny, but something is even off there with their young son who seems to lack any emotion or affection towards anyone other than his parents. Nicky continues disappointing himself going after unattainable women like Sally and Petey and in his desperate measure loses the girl and his whole tiny empire. San refuses to move on from his torment and allow himself to love someone who cares for him, and seems almost content with his life living alone at sea and spending his time thinking of the woman who left him behind. Petey will probably move around again and again as she states to San by the film’s ending, and she seems happy with this choice at the end. In this noir story, it is not really that nobody wins, no one really wants to win.

Given the lack of plot and direction in the script and the film’s two year delay (shot in '45), there is no doubt this must have been a messy schedule. The Breen office required many script revisions and the film became over budget and over production schedule. I did not really notice such a lack of direction and messiness until post-viewing looking back at it, during the film it had such razor sharp dialogue and distinguishable characters I couldn’t even notice.

Originally, the film was originally set to star Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart, and the script looks as if Bennett’s role seems to be something tailor-made for John Garfield, but I can’t imagine Sheridan holding a candle to Lupino, and I think Sheridan’s very talented, but Lupino really strikes a chord when playing these women. Though her body of work may not have been as ‘prominent’ as WB’s higher totem poled A-actress Bette Davis, she brings magic to every piece of work she does in front of and behind camera, and it is at it’s most powerful in the final moment. As for Bennett, this shows he was far better than being thrown in with WB’s cardboard cutout 2nd fiddle leading men like Paul Henreid and George Brent, this is a role he gives such quiet a pain and anger, you can barely recognize him from Monty Pierce. If there’s one performance Bennett should be remembered for rather than being a golden age actor who lived to such an old age, this (along with Treasure of the Sierra Madre) should be it. Sure this films filled with flaws, but the presence of Walsh at his most sentimental, Lupino at her most magical, with that smoky Gershwin song to accompany the story make this movie just special from the rest.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Editor's note: When the question is asked, “What is the first film noir?” usually 1941's Maltese Falcon is the answer. Not everyone agrees, however. Clute and Edwards make a good case for the much more obscure film I Wake Up Screaming released the same year. Others think that the "Falcon" isn't 100-percent noir while the shadowy look of Stranger on the Third Floor much closely resembles the German expressionistic style that was used in later noir from the classic period (although they both share the amazing Peter Lorre). What's not in question is the greatness of the film (which was nominated for best picture of that year). It was critically praised when released and was a hit with movie goers and at the box office. A sequel for the film was even in the works from Warner Bros. Due to the high demand for the cast and director caused by the original's success the second Sam-Spade-Bogart film was never made. Far from forgotten - the third filming of the Dashiell Hammett book still grows in popularity today. Here's a piece from the new book The Rough Guide to Film Noirthat helps tell the story of the making of The Maltese Falcon.

By Alex Ballinger & Danny Gradon from the book Rough Guide to Film Noir

The Maltese Falcon cast and crew: Dir John Huston 1941, US, 100m, b/w Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook Jr.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Music: Adolph Deutsch


“You go and make The Maltese Falcon exactly the way Hammett wrote it, use the dialogue, don’t change a goddam thing and you’ll have a hell of a picture.” So recommends Howard Hawks to first-time director John Huston. Taking Hawks’s advice, the 34-year-old director instructed his secretary to break up Hammett’s 1930 book into basic shots, suing “the novel as a word-for-word guide.”

In the summer of 1941, studio executives regarded The Maltese Falcon as yet another standard Warner Bros detective melodrama with an $81,000 B-movie budget an a six-week shooting schedule. Their contract star, George Raft, had refused the role of Sam Spade and was replaced by character actor Humphrey Bogart, better known for his many secondary roles in 1930s gangster films. It was the novel’s third outing, already filmed as The Maltese Falcon (1931) by Roy Del Ruth and Satan Met a Lady (1935) by William Dieterle. From those inauspicious beginnings, The Maltese Falcon gave birth to the great director-actor partnership of Huston and Bogart, set the standard for all subsequent private eye films, and virtually launched the film noir style.

Action and events in The Maltese Falcon unfold tumultuously. Before we know it, Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), ends up on the wrong end of a Webley .45 after taking on a mundane job for the beautiful Mrs Wonderly (Mary Astor). Investigating Archer’s death, Spade balances his desire for and mistrust of Wonderly (aka Brigid O’Shaughnessy) and encounters a grotesque gallery of characters - Sydney Greenstreet as the fat man Kasper Gutman, Elisha Cook Jr as his “gunsel” Wilmer Cook and Peter Lorre as the effeminate Levantine Joel Cario - and their ruthless quest to find the elusive Maltese falcon. The film is dominated by the unshaven, world-weary Bogart as Spade - streets away from Hammett’s hawkish “blond satan”. His morally ambiguous detective, menacing and jaunty, is at ease in the company of district attorneys as he is with perverse criminals.

The actors and director were a tight bunch, breakfasting together and often socializing at the Lakeside Country Club after filming. Huston’s approach on set was no less refreshing, making Astor run round the studio before takes to induce her breathless and deceptively vulnerable delivery. Huston even cast his father, Walter Huston, in the non-speaking role of Hammett’s 7ft Captain Jacoby, who delivers the falcon to Spade in his death throes.

Leaving nothing to chance, Huston sketched each of the film’s main set-ups and buckled the Hollywood norm by shooting most of the film sequentially. With imperious cinematographer Art Edeson - aka “Little Napoleon” - they continually filmed over Bogart’s shoulder, dolly tracked behind him or showed his point of view to get into the detective’s mindset. Characters are composed in medium shots in unnerving tableaux, for instance Spade flanked by police investigators Dundy (Barton MacLane) and Polhaus (Ward Bond) in his shadowy apartment. In the film’s final tense sequences, as the protagonists await the falcon’s arrival, the frame can hardly contain Gutman’s bulk, the electric presence of Spade and the seething Cairo in the background. Unnerving low angles, such as those of Gutman or the shock cuts of Wilmer’s alarmed point of view as he looks at Gutman, Cairo, Spade and Brigid, led critic Manny Farber to describe Huston as having an “Eisenstein-lubricated brain”.

Visual excess takes a secondary role in Spade’s memorable confrontation with Brigid at the movie’s close. Here, Hawks’s advice would be proved right, as Hammett’s dialogue crackles on screen. With the couple covering an extraordinary amount of detailed plot exposition, Brigid insists on the sincerity of her love for Spade while simultaneously revealing the depths of her deceit. Whatever the tragic outcome, Spade’s self-justifying words to her, “When a man’s partner is killed, he supposed to do something about it”, have a particularly hollow ring to them.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Laura (1944)

This being my first review for the site (go easy on me folks) I decided on the film, Laura, but as I started to write this review a major question popped into my head, “How does one write a review or commentary for a major film entry in the world of noir without giving away a major, and I stress MAJOR plot spoiler? I’m not too sure, but, for the benefit of those who may not have seen Laura, I’m going to do my best to talk about and review this classic noir without giving away the MAJOR plot spoiler.

Directed masterfully by Otto Preminger, who was not set as the original director for Laura, but was the only director available when the original director, Rouben Mamoulian was pulled from the project, this production presents career-making performances from stars Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price.

From the opening frame when we first meet Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and the first words we hear are his voice-over, “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” we know this will be a murder mystery like none other seen in the 1940s. Lydecker is a newspaper columnist who is full of himself, a pompous ass, who believes he had fallen in love with Laura (Gene Tierney) and would do anything to help her succeed in the advertising industry and be accepted with the rich and fabulous of the city.

Enter Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), your typical 1940s hard-boiled detective, who is investigating the murder of Laura through interviews of the two possible suspects, Lydecker and Laura’s fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Through the interviews, Laura’s story is told by means of flashbacks, a technique used in most but not all noirs, and through these flashbacks we begin to uncover how Lydecker fell for Laura, how Laura began to fall for Shelby, and how their obsessions for her love result in her death.

Through these interviews of Laura’s suitors McPherson has no real success which he uses as an excuse to go to Laura’s apartment at night where he searches for clues by going through her personal letters in the hopes of getting one step closer to finding the person who murdered her. What he doesn’t realize or tries not to show is that he to has become obsessive for Laura and is slowly falling in love with a dead woman. He is eventually called on it by Lydecker when he says, “You better watch out, McPherson, or you'll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don't think they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.”

I did say McPherson was your typical 1940s hard-boiled detective, right? Well, what would a hard-boiled detective be without his alcohol? After doing a search through Laura’s apartment, our detective helps himself to a few drinks and falls asleep on one of the sofas only to be awakened to the shock of his life…

And that is where, my friends, to avoid spoiling anything for you, I must quote an old saying, “This is where the plot thickens.”

The script itself is what drives Laura along. The scriptwriters have presented us an intriguing storyline with outstanding plot twists all throughout Laura. You must give credit to scriptwriters of this film, Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt; the trio do an outstanding job adapting the best selling 1943 detective novel by Vera Caspary.

David Raksin’s score for Laura is a beautiful and at times haunting theme that sets the tone and pacing for the entire movie. The story behind this score is to be believed -- that Preminger told Raksin to take a weekend and come up with the theme or he was going to used Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” The ultimate theme that Raksin developed was a perfect fit for the film and Preminger used it for the entire movie.

All the acting performances for Laura were considered career-making for the four leads. However, without Clifton Webb as Waldo
Lydecker, this film would be nothing. Webb is believable as the full-of-himself newspaper columnist who believes that he is the right man for her and does everything in his power to prevent Laura from having other relationships with men--including attacking the men with words through his newspaper column.

Webb also gets some of the best dialogue in the film. Early in the film, Laura approaches him to endorse a pen; his reply, “I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." His delivery of this line just shows you what kind of man Lydecker really is.

Webb’s Lydecker is considered to be one of the most memorable characters in all of film noir and cinema.

The ultimate credit should also be given to the director Otto Preminger, for when he took over this film it was a mess! From the acting to the cinematography and all the way down to the film score, Laura would not have become the classic noir it is without Preminger at the helm.

Written by NoirFanatic
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