Sunday, March 30, 2008

Best Film Noir of All Time (1945-1949)

The second part of our Greatest Film Noir of All Time poll is complete!

The selection for film noir from 1946-1949 was loaded with great movies so I’m sure many had trouble picking a favorite.

1. Out of the Past

Coming in first is what’s now considered the best noir by most (surprising since 15 years ago it probably wouldn’t make the top ten). The movie’s filled with great performances and a wonderful twisty story. The best part: The chemistry between Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. It was hotter than an Acapulco summer afternoon.

2. The Big Sleep

Second is The Big Sleep. The movie is a black and white masterpiece that perfectly brings Raymond Chandler’s words to the screen. Viewers find themselves laughing not because lines are funny but because they’re so damned clever. Who knows who killed who? No one does. The reason people love it is because of Bogie and Bacall. They spend the film toying with each other and we love just listening to them.

3. The Killers

Coming in third after Mitchum and Bogart is Burt Lancaster in The Killers. Film makers (specifically director Robert Siodmak and producer Mark Hellinger) take a very short Hemingway story about two killers and tack on a film noir rollercoaster story after it. Two great couples shine in this one: Lancaster and femme fatale Ava Gardner; and the killers Charles McGraw and William Conrad.

4. Gun Crazy

Gun Crazy - the truly crazy B-movie thriller- comes in fourth. Since Gun Crazy’s release on DVD a few years ago the film has only grown in popularity. A young man’s obsession with guns and later a sharp-shooting dame can only lead to disaster.

5. Nightmare Alley

Number five Nightmare Alley is a grim sordid tale that’s not easily forgotten. Tyrone Power uses all his charm to convince everyone he’s an amazing mind reader. How long could he keep the act up?

6. The Lady from Shanghai

7. The Postman Always Rings Twice

Two steamy thrillers come in at sixth and seventh. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in Lady from Shanghai and John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Welles was criticized for having Hayworth’s hair cut but I think she’s still to die for. Garfield and Turner glamorize James M. Cain’s Postman. Has there ever been this much sexual chemistry in a film? Warning: Big-time spoiler in the Lady from Shanghai film clip.

8. White Heat

8 Notorious

Tied for 8th is White Heat and Notorious. White Heat is usually considered a gangster film rather than a film noir. But the experts are wrong. It’s 100-percent film noir from the beginning to the explosive end. All Hitchcock’s films are pure cinema and Notorious is no exception. Usually Hitch films are in a category all their own but I’m glad film fans recognize this as a great film noir.

10. Gilda (tie)

10. Criss Cross (tie)

Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster have two films in the top ten. Gilda has one of the great character introductions of all time and Criss Cross is just damn perfect. Every time I see Criss Cross I’m always stunned to see Lancaster get his heart broken by Yvonne De Carlo. To make it worse, she marries dog Dan Duryea. Gilda and Cross Cross are 10th.

To recap the last poll with this one:

The top ten from 1941-1944

Double Indemnity
Maltese Falcon
Murder, My Sweet (tie)
Scarlet Street (tie)
Shadow of a Doubt
To Have and Have Not
Fallen Angel
This Gun for Hire

Top Ten from 1945-1949

Out of the Past
The Big Sleep
The Killers
Gun Crazy
Nightmare Alley
The Lady from Shanghai
The Postman Always Rings Twice
White Heat (tie)
Notorious (tie)
Criss Cross

Next we’ll poll the best film noir from 1950-1955. Things don’t get easier from here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Widmark RIP

The last film noir giant is gone. Richard Widmark died earlier this week at the age of 93. Widmark had a long and varied career in Hollywood but is remembered by me for his roles in classic film noir. Widmark's first film role turned out to be a career defining moment. His Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death remains one of the great film performances. He not only stole the film from the stars (he was billed forth) but he created an iconic character that's still aped today.

"Hoods are good parts because they're always flashy and attract attention. If you've got any ability, you can use that as a stepping stone. " Richard Widmark

Who can ever forget that laugh of Tommy Udo's? If you watch the film today and you'll end up finding yourself fast forwarding past the Victor Mature stuff just to get to Widmark. I bet film audience back in the 40s both loved Widmark's performances in crime dramas but also hoped they wouldn't run into him in a dark alley leaving the theater.

Although he played tough-as-nails characters in film he was known as a smart gentle man in "real" life. In No Way Out Widmark spewed racial slurs at Sidney Poitier. Widmark the man didn't feel right doing it. During filming, Poitier ended up having to tell Widmark that he was cool with it because it was important to the film - the movie is way ahead of its time when it comes to Hollywood dealing with race. Widmark is so convincing as the hateful criminal it's surprising to hear that he Poitier ended up as life long friends. Widmark said later, "I was playing this horrible part. I didn't want to play it because the character was an awful racist. But I'm glad I did it because I met Sidney Poitier. "

In film noir, Widmark is obviously remembered for his bad guy roles. He did get to be the hero now and then but it was never as interesting. Maybe the best roles after Kiss of Death were playing anti heroes in Night and the City and Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street.

Here's Widmark in a few lesser films: saving the world in Panic in the Streets and back on the street again in The Street With No Name. Most semi-documentaries like these didn't age well- but Widmark had a knack for giving timeless performances that elevated his film roles above the corny flag-waving stuff semi-documentaries were known for. He almost single-handedly lifted these preachy crime films from B-movie fluff to serious film noir.

Widmark wasn't always top banana in his films. Not to be forgotten are his costarring roles in Road House with Ida Lupino and Don't Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe. Road House is underrated and just a fantastic little noir. They need to re-release this one on DVD. And how can you not like the slightly sleazy trailer for Don't Bother to Knock?

Widmark is gone but he's a legend that won't be forgotten - thanks to his films being reissued on home video and airing on television. Obviously, he gave more than his roles in film noir (he was in some amazing Westerns too) but for many of us he was the tough guy in some very dark films.

The blond-haired maturely handsome Widmark aged well - at least I found his heavily-lined face to have even more character in 60s and 70s movies. Middle-aged Widmark found himself working in some excellent films later in life (including the star-filled Murder on the Orient Express.) He took another shot at noir too. Here's Madigan:

Share your thoughts on Richard Widmark at the message board.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Blast of Silence (1961)

Editor's note: in addition to this great and strange movie coming out on DVD (from Criterion no less) the rarely-seen gem is being screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival in April. The festival is associated with the very popular Noir Con going on at the same time. This film, one I consider the last of the classic noirs, is finally getting the respect it deserves.

By Mike White

Asking a group of cinephiles what films book ended the film noir cycle is akin to throwing raw meat to a pack of wild dogs. You’re liable to lose a finger if you’re not careful. It’s commonly held that Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil rounded out the movement but Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence should rightfully hold this distinction. Akin to the classic Poverty Row films where noir found its American niche—like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)—Baron’s film is a low budget excursion into the underworld of New York following Baby Boy Frankie Bono (Baron), a hit man who comes out the cold black silence into a deep and dark December to knock off Troiano (Peter H. Clune), a “second string syndicate boss with too much ambition.” Like Jules Dassin’s Rififi, the exterior scenes in Blast of Silence were shot on overcast days, adding to the grittiness of the mise en scene.

“You were born in pain,” intones the distinct gravel voice of Lionel Stander in his insistent voiceover that be-bops along like a Beat poem, perfectly paired with the languid Meyer Kupferman jazz score. The typical noir convention has the main character narrating his tale. Stander works as Frankie’s conscience at times; the voice of an omniscient narrator at others. His narration—written by Waldo Salt under the name Mel Davenport—elevates Baron’s film from an elegant crime story into a sublime, nihilistic gem. That the voiceover also gives a wealth of exposition while filling in some of the film’s slower, albeit beautifully shot, sequences doesn’t hurt either.

Frankie sees himself as an Angel of Vengeance. He learns to hate every mark; wiping them out does the world a favor. A misanthropic orphan, Frankie is the prototype for Travis Bickle, “God’s lonely man.” He lurks through the streets of Manhattan “smooth, like a piece of precision machinery” as he trails his mark, encountering unsavory characters in the process like the corpulent Ralphie. Living with his pet rats, Ralphie practically wheezes corruption. Wonderfully played by Larry Tucker (best remembered for his role as Pagliacci in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor), he’s the stand out of the film.

Like much of the cast, Blast of Silence was the first foray into film for Tucker. This contrasts Salt and Stander who were both seasoned professionals and victims of the HUAC blacklist. The mix of novice enthusiasm and old guard professionalism came together perfectly in Baron’s freshman film, creating a fitting finale for American film noir.

Unavailable in the U.S. legitimately for decades, Blast of Silence was release in France on DVD as Baby Boy Frankie in 2007 before finally garnering a Criterion disc in the States in 2008.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mildred Pierce (1945)

What makes Mildred Pierce a great film noir? You don’t have to go too far into the film to find out. Right after the Warner Bros. logo fades off the screen an amazing group of scenes are threaded together to help introduce the viewer to the characters, a rainy beach location and most importantly - a murder.

Mildred Pierce was directed by famed Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz - a director of an amazing amount of film classics (The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) in five years!). Curtiz had a touch of gold and executives hoped he could repeat his success especially since James M. Cain’s racy novelwas considered unfilmable by many. The screenplay was cleaned up due to pressure from the Production code and the story was trimmed to be less complicated than the novel. Even though the film took place in sunny California by the beach, Curtiz used German Expressionistic style to make Mildred Pierce’s world appropriately dark and gloomy. Check out the great use of shadows when Zachary Scott’s body is found by Jack Carson during the opening scene. I think the cinematography and Max Steiner’s dramatic score (and not because of the melodramatic story) is what makes this one of the best film noirs made. Another example is the shocking confrontation between Scott and Crawford at the end of the film. Of course the performances by Scott, Carson, Ann Blyth and Crawford certainly helped elevate the film from soap opera to a gripping drama.

It’s hard to believe today but Joan Crawford wasn’t wanted for the role. She was considered washed up as a box-office draw not to mention she had a reputation for being difficult. Only after leading ladies including Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan couldn’t be secured did the go with Crawford. To Curtiz’s surprise Crawford gave the performance of her career. The film went on to become a huge box-office hit and Crawford won an Oscar for her bravura portrayal.

Zachary Scott is fantastic and should have won an Oscar for his role too. Scott as the lazy lounge lizard Monte Beragon- Mildred’s second husband - who, as Eve Arden comments, “(was) probably frightened by a callus at an early age!” is the ultimate playboy leech. The only other performance comparable to it is Tyrone Power playing the womanizer in Witness for the Prosecution. Scott usually comes across too slick in other films (including the disappointing Curtiz/Crawford reteaming in Flamingo Road a few years later) but in this he’s just right. Maybe his naturally slimy Jack-Cassidy-like mannerisms just worked in his favor in this one. You actually feel sorry for Mildred Pierce because of all the people take advantage of her. That is an amazing feat because Crawford usually gets no pity from movie viewers.

Jack Carson plays another man in Mildred Pierce’s life that spends the movie either trying to bed her or get her money. Bruce (Tarzan) Bennett is the third man and possibly the only guy to treat Mildred well. Oh wait, he did leave the mother of two penniless earlier in the film for another woman. Later he does redeem himself and I’m sure most of the audience probably wished they never separated in the first place.

Usually when a film noir has a female lead it ends up not having a femme fatale. Not in this case. Ann Blyth plays the angelic looking Veda. She spends four years in the movie making her self-sacrificing mother's life hell. She's a gold-digger and a spoiled brat no matter how many times her mother tries to straighten her out.

Mildred makes a fortune and then begins to loose it all because of her. “Don't tell anyone what Mildred did!” You'll have to see the movie to believe how evil Veda is.

Rounding out the dames in the film are Eve Arden and Butterfly McQueen playing their usual roles of sassy sidekick and the family maid. Guess who plays which roles? Arden surprisingly received an Academy Award nomination for this but McQueen is actually funnier. Sharp eyes will notice Lee Patrick (Sam Spade's secretary in The Maltese Falcon) in a small role as Bennett's girlfriend.

The film has lots of drama into two hours but the best -and most visually sunning - parts of the film are the amazing opening flashback sequence and surprising resolution right at the end. This is Crawford's greatest performance.

About the trailer (below): With all the talk in the original Warner Bros. trailer about how evil Mildred was, turns out she's the victim of all kinds of mental abuse from nearly everyone around her. I guess from the guy's perspectives she's the bad one but that's not the reality.

Written by Steve-O

Monday, March 10, 2008

A Woman's Devotion (aka Battle Shock 1956)

Any list of the classic attributes of this thing called film noir congers up images of high heels on wet pavement, dark & gritty urban landscapes, double crosses and that four lettered F word; fate.

So how then do honeymooners frolicking on the sun splashed beaches of Acapulco cut the mustard as noir? In no less the works of noted noir authorities Mike Keaney and Art Lyons in their books on the subject; Film Noir Guideand Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noiris this film found. As the debate continues to rage over the merits of style vs. theme we’ll have to op out for theme on this hard to find entry. The oft told tale of the unstable WWII vet plays out again with disastrous consequents for any female near our protagonist when a loud noise is heard.

Our story opens to find noir pretty boy Ralph Meeker and equally easy on the eyes Janice Rule as newlyweds Trevor and Stella Stevenson on an extended honeymoon. Just off a banana freighter to Acapulco via the canal, the couple plays and teases one another on the dock without it would seem a care in the world. Of course all’s not right in paradise as Trevor soon complains of a headache brought on by the constant banging from the engine noise. It seems Stella, when booking passage made the error of obtaining a stateroom in close proximity to the engine room. Ends up our girl Stella made another big mistake by getting hooked up with Trevor but when a guys good looking, a war hero (Medal of Honor and Purple Heart), well off (inherited a fortune) and a successful painter well what’s a girl to do?

To relive his headache Stella agrees to take a cab to the hotel and check in while Trevor takes a walk. Arriving at the hotel Stella is introduced to our other primary charter, Police Captain Henrique Monteros played by Paul Henreid (who also directs). In that the Captain is the nephew of the hotel’s owner, he’s got plenty of reason to be around the hotel and of course he’ll have even more in an official capacity later on. The others introduced are of little note with the exception of an over the top lesbian couple placed for comic relief and Maria the hotel maid who will end up carrying the load of the femme fatale.

Switching back to Trevor, we find his walk of relaxation has lead him right to the nearest beachside cantina, a glass of beer and the arms of the obligatory alluring female. Here we discover Trevor’s an artist and he’s always on the lookout for models. The cantina’s waitress, who of course lives nearby is open to the idea of making a couple extra Pecos and suggests she and Trevor get better acquainted at her place. They depart the cantina, the scene fades out and next thing we know its early morning and rover boy’s just making his way into the hotel.

Being the perfect wife, Stella blissfully sleeps away as her wayward husband makes his way into their room and into his bed. She’s only awaken from her slumber when a knock upon the door by Captain Monteros rouses her. The Captain’s the bearer of news of the death of certain waitress at a certain cantina and seen in the company of a certain American tourist who just happens to be sawing logs in the next room. The Captain’s curious as to how Trevor can maintain his peaceful repose and it’s revealed by Stella he suffers from headache and takes medication. This seems to satisfy the Captain but he asks for the couple to visit his office later for some “routine questioning.”

At the station when confronted with the sketchy details of the murder the night before, Trevor is obviously unmoved by the event and states he merely left at the same time as the waitress and did not accompany her home. He’s downright cheerful during the entire process and completed detached from the whole ugly affair. The effect upon him would have been the same had the Captain been reading the hotel lunch menu to him so uncompassionate is his demeanor we’re left thinking perhaps he is in the clear.

Lest those thoughts linger long, soon Maria’s knocking on the door and we find Stella cleaning paint brushes while wearing which is most likely the shortest pair of shorts in noir history and putting them to good use I might add. Upon opening the door Maria displays what she says is proof of Trevor’s involvement with the murder by revealing several sketches made by Trevor. Maria goes on to tell Stella these were found by her in the house of the waitress and she’d be willing to discuss their return for a price. Stella of course believing her husband is innocent nevertheless accompanies Maria to the house of the waitress.

Here we meet the nogoodnick crumb of a husband who was married to the waitress and just so happens to be Maria’s lover. He’s completely unmoved by the lost of his wife and is only interested in the possibility of getting a little compensation for the return of the drawings. In that he’s a rumdum boxer and was away at a match the prior evening he has a perfect alibi. With the disclosure to the drawings all fingers points point again towards Trevor and the clear connection between the finding of the drawings by Maria as opposed to the police when they searched the joint.

When Stella confronts Trevor with the existence of the drawings and the blackmail plot his first thought is to go to the police, tell them he made up the story to spare his wife and that he’s completely innocent of anything but a lapse of good judgment. But upon further review they decide the cops will never buy it so the best course of action is to pay off the blackmailers, charter a fishing boat and skip town.

Trevor will make the money drop at the home of the waitress/boxer/Maria’s hangout and upon arrival finds the boxer dead. Drunk, that is. Maria though is another story and after giving her the money she suggest they cement the deal with a couple of shots of tequila between them. This may have worked, out save for the untimely automobile collision outside and the accompanying load noise just has they’d finished off their second shot. As previously noted Trevor doesn’t dig loud noises, just like a certain Frank Bigelow didn’t like it in the gut and the trip wire of Trevor’s emotions is sprung.

From this point on you can pretty much make book that the demise of both femme fatale and protagonist will play out as mandated by the code of noir, one getting their just desserts as a parasite and the other as a sadly delayed casualty of the war.

Written by Raven

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Force of Evil (1948)

Editor's note: Clute and Edwards have the best podcast on the web. If you love pulp crime novels and film noir than you have to check out their webpage. Their page and Noir of the Week have both been around for a couple of years now. I like to stop by every now and then and see what films they've covered compared to the ones we do. (they beat us to the punch on a few - including The Grifters) This week they agreed to write an article for us. This article for Force of Evil coincides with their more-expansive podcast about the John Garfield classic. Over at the message board, we've added a section where you can comment on Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir - and this article. Please stop by and let them know what you think. The link is

by Clute and Edwards

"What do you mean gangsters? This is business."

Force of Evil, Abraham Polonsky's superlative 1948 debut, is as brave and uncompromising as Polonsky himself. When making this film, Polonsky had no way of knowing he was about to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and it would be over twenty years before he directed another movie. But when we watch Force of Evil, we see a degree of bravery and intelligence that would lead us to believe Polonsky would refuse to name names for HUAC, and would accept his blacklist status without breaking—as was the case.

Force of Evil tells the story of Joe Morse (John Garfield), an ambitious lawyer whose principal client is Joe Tucker (Roy Roberts), the boss of a numbers racket. Together, they put in a fix to bankrupt the other rackets and force them all into a quasi-legal lotto to be controlled by the two of them. One of the victims of their scheme is Joe's brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), who has a small "numbers bank" of his own. As Joe struggles to bring Leo into the fold without spilling the fix, and Leo fights to retain his business without exactly going straight, we see more shades of grey than are found at most bankers conventions. Everyone is willing to turn a blind eye to moral trespasses if they stand to profit. Some will sell out cheap. Some will see their errors and mend their ways—or, at least, raise their price. Corruption is no longer a question of type of activity, it's a question of scale. Small-time graft is shown to be far less dangerous than the big-time rackets that have the law, the trust of the public, and the appearance of respectability on their side.

Ultimately, the crime is the system itself, and Force of Evil shows the very philosophical underpinnings of capitalism to be liable; listen to Joe's speech to Doris Lowry (Beatrice Pearson) in the taxi, and just try and claim otherwise. And while Polonsky's willingness to take on the corruption inherent in the system is remarkable, the degree of craft he exhibits as a rookie director is nothing short of astonishing. The screenplay he co-authors with Ira Wolfert (on whose novel "Tucker's People"the film is based) is so sharp and biting, so rich in its ability to expose the poverty of our dreams, and so stylized and impossibly catchy in its dialogue, that it can't help but feel more real than the real. With this script and uncommon directing talent, Polonsky coaxes career-best performance from Garfield, Gomez, and Marie Windsor, whose few minutes of screen time as Mrs. Tucker are so powerful that we imagine an entire backstory with her as the femme fatale pulling all strings behind the scenes. And with Director of Photography George Barnes, Polonsky gives us some of the most beautiful and narratively rich shots in film history, alternately using the camera to reinforce and undermine the principal themes and actions of the story, and create tremendous tension.

Force of Evil is one of those rare film masterpieces in which the story, script, casting, acting, direction, photography, and sound design work in perfect harmony to create a taut and deeply enjoyable story. And it may be the noir that most perfectly captures the societal anxieties of America in the late 40's—the ambiguous and fearful relationship to the great cities and great institutions that were the sclerotic backbone of the country after WWII. When we see this film, we begin to understand the devastating cultural price we pay when we allow ourselves to live according to the status quo, and be governed by fear.


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