Sunday, 28 December 2008

Hollow Triumph, aka The Scar (Steve Sekely, 1948)

Evelyn Hahn: “It’s a bitter little world…”

The fatalism of a bitter little world is ever present in this movie. Former medical student John Muller (Paul Henreid) has just been released from prison. He has planned a robbery at a casino which turns out to be a failure. Muller has to escape to L.A. where he takes a job but the menace of being caught casts a permanent shadow on his life.
He comes to know by chance that he looks almost exactly like psychiatrist Victor Bartok. He sees a chance of escaping his fate if he can impersonate the doctor: He has a good psychiatry practice and a nice secretary (Joan Bennet).
This becomes Muller’s objective and he plans carefully how to “become” Dr Bartok. To make this resemblance more likely he manages to reproduce a facial scar and later he kills and gets rid of the doctor.
When Muller has succeeded impersonating Dr Bartok he suddenly has to face the troubles of the dead man. Muller will be a victim and pay, not for his crimes but for the doctor’s past troubles… His fate was following him all the way…
This is not one of the great films of the noir style (it is not usually in the top lists), however it has the essence of the genre… there is a fatalistic quality in the movie with a menacing shadowy photography (great work by John Alton).

John Muller: “It’s too late and what’s the use? You can never go back and start again… You don’t see what’s happening to you. It just happens

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang 1953)

Debbie Marsh: The main thing is to have the money. I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better.

This sentence, spoken by street wise Debbie Marsh (maybe the best performance by Gloria Grahame) tells about a society in which rotten rich people have the power and influence over all institutions.

Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is the syndicate boss of this corrupt city. Even the police are part of this system and they receive “orders” from the crime mob.

Lt. Ted Wilks: It was bad judgment to bother a cop's widow about the love life of her husband.
Dave Bannion: Good or bad, it was my judgment.
Lt. Ted Wilks: You're missing the point. I'm the one that gets the pressure calls from upstairs. I'm the one that has to explain. You don't keep an office like this very long stepping on a lot of corns.

Policeman Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) wants to fight this corruption. However he loses his wife – killed by Lagana’s right hand, Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Lang portrays a society in which ethics has a high price – Bannion’s quest for justice will cause the death of several innocent women. So there is a pessimistic message lying under the heroic story.

Bannion, angry with the police department loses his job and becomes an isolated figure seeking for revenge and justice – in a role that would be developed later by actors like Clint Eastwood.

Bannion can only rely on his relatives and friends to protect her young daughter. This seems to be the main message of a great movie with unforgettable sequences – like the scalding coffee scene (though it happens off screen)...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud (Louis Malle, 1958)

Florence: “Je t’ai perdu dans cette nuit Julien… Mais il faut que tu reviennes. Il faut que tu sois là, vivant, à côté de moi… Julien… il faut, il faut…"

Florence (a gorgeous Jeanne Moreau) is walking alone along the half deserted Paris boulevards. We can hear Miles Davis trumpet. Its sound is cold, somewhat distant, cutting the Paris night. She walks the dim-lit, damp streets from café to café in search of his lover who will not appear.
Florence is looking for Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). Julien has killed his employer – and Florence’s husband - Simon Carala (Jean Wall).
The two of them had planned the perfect crime making it look as if it was a suicide. But Julien gets caught in an elevator and his car is stolen by a young dissatisfied couple who want to live fast… (this film was made just two years before Godard filmed “À Bout de Souffle”).
The “nouvelle vague” directors were admirers of the American film noir and they created some gems of the genre with some “European” touches. Louis and Véronique, he young couple, remind us of those doomed fugitives in the movies of the 30s and 40s but with something of an existentialist emptiness.

Louis: “Reveille-toi, on se’n va…”
Véronique: “Mais Louis, tu es fou?”

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Third Man (Carol Reed 1949)

Harry Lime: Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don't miss much here, poor devils.

Pulp western writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives to post war Vienna to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Just after his arrival he is told that his friend has died in an accident. The police also tell him that he was a racketeer (dealing with diluted penicillin).

The film is about friendship, loyalty, treason. However it is also about good and evil, power, ambition… As Harry points out from the top of the Prater wheel: Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

While inquiring about Harry’s death Holly falls in love with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Harry’s girlfriend. But Martins fails, as a lover and maybe as a friend too (he betrays Harry and reports him to the police). As the film progresses Holly becomes a sort of pathetic hero while Harry is a fascinating villain.

Filmed in deep black and white – with an unforgettable score by Anton Karas - in a war scarred Vienna the movie leaves little room for hope: The pessimistic film ends with Anna walking along the deserted tree-lined cemetery road after Harry’s funeral. It’s autumn and the leaves roll on the ground, Holly is waiting for her. However she passes by him without a look or a gesture…

Harry Lime: Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)

Joe Wilson: I'll give them a chance that they didn't give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defence. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

Innocent Joe Wilson wants to have his revenge after he has almost been killed by an angry mob. The jury doesn’t know he’s still alive so the rioters may be sentenced to death…

At the beginning of the movie Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) is driving across the country to meet his girlfriend Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney). He is wrongly arrested as a kidnapper and held in a provincial town prison. Word spreads around town (its inhabitants are portrayed as greedy, intolerant hypocrites) that the criminal is in jail and an angry mob tries to lynch him and burn down the building.

Lang shows the people actually enjoying violence, burning the jail… It’s the hysterical mob that has escaped control… - it’s certainly an expression of the troubled times in the thirties…

However Joe’s girlfriend persuades him to show up in court:
Katherine: [to Joe] If those people die, Joe Wilson dies too; you know that, don't you? Wherever you go, whatever you do.

Critics state the MGM imposed a happy ending with Joe showing up and therefore the condemned mob avoided punishment.
However there seems to be no mercy for the villagers the from Lang. They don’t seem to have learned any lesson – the only relief when they see Joe alive is the relief of knowing they will not be condemned…

Friday, 25 July 2008

House of Bamboo (Sam Fuller, 1955)

Sandy Dawson: Who are you working for?
Eddie Kenner: [pretending to be Eddie Spanier] Spanier.
Sandy Dawson: Who's Spanier?
Eddie Kenner: Me.
Sandy Dawson: Who else you working for?
Eddie Kenner: Eddie.

Sergeant Kenner - posing as Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) - tries to become a member of Sandy Dawson’s gang. Dawson (a role played by Robert Ryan who has a strong presence in the film) is the head of a violent gang formed by expatriate war veterans. Kenner is helped by Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi); eventually he will win Dawson’s confidence (some critics see a hint of homosexuality in their relationship) and will try to warn the police about the gang future crimes.

This is an unusual film noir (a loose remake of The Street with no Name). It was filmed in Technicolor and the setting was Japan. There are stills with Mount Fuji, the Kamakura Buddha; Tokyo is the real stage where most of the action takes place. From our perspective the Japanese background may seem a little exotic and stereotyped but there are very beautiful stills (in fact the setting is one of the strong points of the movie) and there is also some hint of American violence towards Japanese society - the ending in the amusement park reinforces this idea.

The final climax on the bizarre park tower may have some resemblance with White Heat. Some gangsters may reach to the top but they are bound to fall…

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)

Caesar Enrico Bandello: Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?

These are the famous last words spoken in this milestone of gangster movies (the seeds of film noir had been planted).

Rico or “little Caesar” (Edward G Robinson) is a small-town gangster (the opening scene with a robbery at a gas station is one of the best moments of the movie). He ambitions to become a big racketeer: I could do all the things that fella does, and more, only I never got my chance. And when I get in a tight spot, I shoot my way out of it. Why sure. Shoot first and argue afterwards. You know, this game ain't for guys that's soft!

He decides to move east with his colleague Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). However Joe doesn’t want to follow Rico’s footsteps the crime league and his ambition is to become a professional dancer together with his loved Olga (Glenda Farrell).

Rico will continue his rise to become a big racketeer - a memorable scene is the killing of gang member Tony on the church stairs (it reminded me of Eddie Bartlett’s death in The Roaring Twenties). The will to have former colleague Joe by his side – seeking true loyalty - will lead to Rico’s downfall.

The rise and fall of Rico Bandello is narrated using the technique of early cinema (for example with the use of written “tableaux”). There are clear references to the Italian American world (as in the 1Club Palermo). Little Caesar became an iconic film and E.G. Robinson would also become one of the references in gangster film and later in noir movies.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy 1932)

Helen: Jim, why haven't you come before?
: I couldn't, I was afraid to.
: But you could have written. It's been almost a year since you escaped.
: But I haven't escaped. They're still after me. They'll always be after me. I've had jobs but I can't keep them. Something happens. Someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night. No friends. No rest. No peace.

: How do you live?
James Allen
: I steal.

In the famous last scene of this film James Allen (excellent acting by Paul Muni) appears from the shadows of the night to bid farewell to her lover before disappearing in the dark The prison system hasn’t given him any chances and has broken his life and respectability.

Allen, a war veteran had refused to work in a routine factory job because he wanted something else in life: “I don't want to be spending the rest of my life answering a factory whistle instead of a bugle call… I want to do something worthwhilelife is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid, insignificant job

His ambition was to build bridges as an engineer, however he had a difficult start and in the south he was involved in a crime. In spite of being innocent he was sentenced to ten years of hard labour.

After some months of harsh conditions he manages to escape with the help of some inmates and later moves to Chicago where he finds a good job and respectability.

But Marie (Glenda Farrell) - a primitive femme fatale – blackmails him and he returns to the south to serve for some weeks to get his pardon.

However the southern justice doesn’t keep its promise and he is confined for years in a tougher camp. Eventually he manages to escape together with inmate Bomber (Edward Ellis) but he will be a chased character, forced to live in the shadows…

The film (based on an autobiographic novel by Robert Elliot Burns was controversial at the time of its release – especially in the Southern States - and it contributed to the abolition of forced labour in the US. As one of the tagline of the film reads: "Six sticks of dynamite that blasted his way to freedom...and awoke America's conscience!"

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

Laura McNeal: What's the matter, won't the pieces fit together?
P.J. McNeal: Some of them, but they make the wrong picture.
Laura McNeal: Pieces never make the wrong picture. Maybe you're looking at them from the wrong angle.

Reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) tries to match the pieces of a crime that was committed in Chicago in 1932. An advertisement - call Northside 777 - on the newspaper offering a reward for information on a murder had put him in contact with convicted Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and his mother who is working hard to get her son out of prison.

Stewart (who never looks too comfortable in his role) is impressed by the woman determination and decides to write about Wiecek case.

As the story progresses McNeal – who was sceptical about the case - gathers evidence that Wiecek is innocent and will fight to prove his innocence. We are told at the beginning of the movie that it is based on a true story. In fact the documentary style is present all along the film – it was popular at that time. Besides, Call Northside 777 was also filmed on location (Chicago) giving an air of realism to this interesting – though in some aspects dated – movie.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Spade: We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss O'Shaughnessy, we believed your 200 dollars. I mean you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it alright.

Sam Spade’s words to Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) are an example of the tone of this hard-boiled detective story. There is an atmosphere of moral emptiness surrounding the main characters. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is investigating the murder of his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) and will find himself involved in a dangerous quest for a precious ancient statue of a falcon. Several double-faced, weird characters are after the “bird”:

Detective Tom Polhaus: [grabs the falcon] Heavy. What is it?
Sam Spade: The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.

The artists playing the roles of the intriguing characers are big names too: Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Elisha Cook Jr as Wilmer Cook or Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman. It’s a film with great performances, witty dialogues, an iconic gem of early film noir.

The movie – based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel - would also be a turning point in Bogart’s career: he had mainly been given roles of gangster until this film. In The Maltese Falcon he became a hard-boiled, cynical, individualistic character.

Sam Spade: I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Force of evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Joe Morse: “I found my brother's body at the bottom there, where they had thrown it away on the rocks... by the river... like an old dirty rag nobody wants. He was dead - and I felt I had killed him.”

Joe Morse (John Garfield) descent to reality – to find his brother dead on the rocks under Manhattan Bridge – makes him aware of a bleak world.

Force of Evil – narrated in a documentary style - is a noir film with a social background and a dark view of capitalism and democracy.

Joe Morse is a successful lawyer for a big lottery racket – Tucker enterprises – which manipulates the lottery results for their own benefit.

Joe Morse: “…the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket”.

His brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) owns a small lottery company which will be destroyed (along with many other small companies) by the racketeers. It’s part of a plan to make Tucker’s gambling businesses legal. Symbolically enough the date chosen to perform this deed is 4th of July – Independence day – using lottery number 776 (from 1776, when the US declared their own independence). Joe tries to convince his brother to close the business at least for one day – and thus avoid bankruptcy but Leo doesn’t want to let his costumers down.

The two brothers are at different ends of a corrupt system, though they have different views:

Leo Morse: The money I made in this rotten business is no good for me, Joe. I don't want it back. And Tucker's money is no good either.
Joe Morse: The money has no moral opinions.
Leo Morse: I find I have, Joe. I find I have

Force of Evil was the only film directed by Polonsky before being blacklisted (both Polonsky and Garfield were later accused for their political views)

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Scarface (Howard Hawks 1932)

'Johnny' Lovo: Hey, stop him somebody!
Tony Camonte: Get out of my way Johnny, I'm gonna spit!

Violence is a ever-present element in this Hawks masterpiece. The film, made in the early thirties, is a gangster movie with some noir elements: Though most critics agree that “true” noir starts in the early forties the treatment of light and shadow is very special in some of the scenes. Scarface would provide the tone for many movies made later.

This portrait of the gangster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) had some problems with the censorship – it was accused of glorifying gangsters; a long disclaimer had to be added at the beginning of the movie: …the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: 'What are you going to do about it?' The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?. Besides the subtitle “Shame of a Nation” was also added to the original title.

Camonte is portrayed as a ruthless gangster who stops at nothing to reach his goals: bootlegging, murders (“x” marks the spot in some memorable cuts – as in the bowling scene). As Tony says: “Listen, l'il Boy, in this business there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble. (He pats his gun in his coat pocket and cocks his thumb and finger - and fires.) Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doin' it.”

Therefore the film has a grim, raw mood with only some funny moments with Camonte’s secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett).

Camonte’s story is one of a rise and fall; Tony’s insane jealousy of his sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak) – there is a Borgia quality in the treatment of these two characters - will lead him to his own destruction. After killing his sister’s husband, Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), he is surrounded by the police and finally killed under the sign: The World is Yours – something which reminds of Cody Jarrett’s (James Cagney) final words: “top of the world” in White Heat.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954)

Viki Buckley: When I first came to live here I thought I’d never get used to the trains…”

The sound of passing trains, a maze of railroad tracks (entwining, separating… just like people’s lives), steam coming out from engines.. (the heat of desire…) are always present in this bleak movie.

The cold, gloomy railway stations are the setting for this destructive love story.

Human desire - a melodrama with noir aesthetics and pessimism - is based on a novel by Émile Zola which had already been made into a film by Jean Renoir.

Viki (Gloria Grahame) is a femme fatale who drags Corea war veteran Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford) to a passionate love affair. She plans the murder of her violent jealous husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) – a fact that may remind us of Double Indemnity.

In this movie Columbia was taking advantage of the success of the couple Ford-Grahame in “The Big Heat” (also directed by Lang); the chemistry between the two stars is still there but not as thrilling as it was in the former film.

All in all Human desire is a good Lang film in a period when the German director made a series of remarkable films.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947)

Dr. Walters:: What makes you drunk? Power?

A world of brute force is portrayed in this violent film. Westgate prison and the will to escape of prisoners Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and Gallagher (Charles Bickford) are a metaphor of society – we should remember the social commitment of director Jules Dassin. In fact the prisoners are portrayed as victims of an oppressive system (a few of them are there for romantic reasons) that won’t give them any chance. As Gallagher states: Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead!

On the other hand nazi-like prison guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) is a portrait of fascist ambition for power and rebellion against him and the system seems the only way to escape from that nightmare.

Gallagher: That's cemetery talk.
Joe Collins: Why not, we're buried, ain't we? Only thing is, we ain't dead.

The apocalyptic final attack against Munsey and the tower is a symbol of rebellion against a rotten form of power (a few of the artists who participated in this film would become later victims of the McCarthy campaign). Captain Munsey will be killed (as Dr Walters had told him: Force does make leaders. But you forget one thing: it also destroys them) but the system will remain…

The prisoners remembering their past lives (with a series of flashbacks) was the only way to escape from that world. But in fact they were all doomed…

Dr. Walters: Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949)

Steve Thompson: She's all right, she's just young.
Mrs. Thompson: (about Anna) Huh! Some ways, she knows more than Einstein.

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) comes back to LA. He had left some months ago after divorcing Anna (Yvonne de Carlo). She is now involved with the gambler and gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea).

Steve, who has got back to his job as an armoured-car payroll guard, is still in love with Anna and realises that he can get her away from Slim if he manages to make a lot of money from a bank robbery. So taking advantage of his job he plans a hold-up together with Slim only to betray him later.

In “The Killers” - also directed by Robert Siodmak - Burt Lancaster is hopelessly waiting for some gangsters who will come and kill him. The scene is somehow repeated in Criss Cross. In the robbery, Steve (Burt Lancaster) tries to double-cross Slim to get away with Anna afterwards. However his obsession with this femme fatale will lead to his own destruction.

He is wounded in the heist and Slim gets to know about his plans and sooner or later he will get the couple.

The robbery sequences, the scenes at the hospital and the final ones (shot with a powerful use of dark and light) are film noir at its best – with a sense of tragedy in the final embrace of the two lovers.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?

Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) "insurance salesman, 35 years old, unmarried, no visible scars… until a while ago, that is" confesses his crime.

In a flashback – the plot is told in voice-over - we are shown his meeting with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Fred feels an irresistible sexual attraction for her, for her blond hair (Stanwyck was actually wearing an ordinary wig), for her .

Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.

So he is seduced by her and he gets into a murder trap: How could I have known that murder could sometimes smell like honeysuckle?

Phyllis wants to get rid of her husband and earn a lot of money. Walter has been in the business for eleven years so he knows all about life insurances and about the usual mistakes people make. So they plan to get Pyhllis’ husband killed on a train accident which would entitle them to double indemnity.

Phyllis: We're both rotten.
Walter Neff: Only you're a little more rotten.

Walter’s office colleague and friend, Barton Keyes (E.G. Robinson) is an expert claim manager. Although he has a big intuition – his “little man” he calls it – to discover false plots, he is unable to find the truth about this case.

Double Indemnity is one of the greatest film noir of all time. It is based on a novel by James M. Cain the screenplay was written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. The movie has witty dialogues, great performances and a special use of light and dark scenes by John F. Seitz. A masterpiece…

Laura (Otto Preminger 1944)

Waldo Lydecker: I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York.

The narration of egocentric columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) introduces us to the memory of Laura (Gene Tierney) – an elegant publicist who has been killed recently.

Lieutenant Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is in charge of the investigation of her murder. Following his investigations the story is narrated in flashback. Laura may be dead but her spell is still haunting and fascinating us – and McPherson too - through a melody, a portrait, her friends’ descriptions…

The dream-like almost ethereal presence of Laura Hunt sets the tone for what is maybe the most elegant noir film ever made. The atmospheric David Raskin theme, the soft black and white colour, all can give an impression that we are in Mark McPherson’s dream:

Laura: What are you doing here?
: You're alive.
: If you don't get out at once, I'm going to call the police.
: You are Laura Hunt, aren't you? Aren't you?
: I'm going to call the police.
: I am the police. In fact some critics argue that the second part of the film – after Laura’s arrives while McPherson is sleeping could be his own dream…
This thrilling whodunit movie is also a remarkable character study: Together with Laura and McPherson the caustic, self-centred Lydecker (In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention) , the broke playboy Shelby (a young Vincent Price), the jealous mature Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) set an elegant puzzle of characters not to be forgotten.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Caged (John Cromwell 1950)

Georgia: Do you hear that train? People are going home on that train. Let me out of here! I don’t belong here!

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), a naïve and frightened 19-year-old is sent to prison for being an accomplice in an armed robbery. Marie – a pregnant widow – looks completely helpless and innocent (at the beginning it is difficult to believe that she is a convict).

The promises of the prison head (Agnes Moorehead) for a fair treatment and a possible parole after some months become nothing but good intentions. Under the surveillance of the menacing prison guard (Hope Emerson) Marie learns about the hard life in the penitentiary and she realises that behaving honestly she just has no possibility of being free.

As Kitty tells her: In this cage you get tough or you get killed.

The vision of the justice and society in this film is deeply negative. The underprivileged ones never have a chance: Marie has to give her child on adoption because nobody – no even her mother – wants to take care of him.
The judicial system appears to be corrupt and at the service of the wealthy classes. Besides the prison system proves to be not only useless but also damaging for the individuals.

Marie Allen: For that forty bucks I heisted I sure got myself an education.

So Marie Allen can only get the parole when she makes a deal with the crooked, powerful ones. But her future will be a life of crime…
Prison's secretary: What shall I do with her file?
Ruth Benton: Keep it active. She'll be back

Monday, 10 March 2008

D.O.A (Dead on Arrival, Rudolph Maté 1950)

Frank Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
Homicide Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
Frank Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
Homicide Captain: Who was murdered?
Frank Bigelow: I was.

At the beginning of the film (as we read the titles) Frank Bigelow is walking down corridors in the police headquarters. He is going to report his own murder.

From that scene a flashback takes us to Frank’s short holiday in San Francisco. While he was at a jazz club he was poisoned with Iridium.

After a visit to the doctor he slowly becomes aware of his fatal situation: (Dr. MacDonald tells him: I don't think you fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered).

He has a short time to live and the movie becomes a desperate search for who has poisoned him and why – part of this search takes place in typically noir settings as in an abandoned factory.

After his quest Frank finds himself an innocent victim of a plot filled with other people’s ambitions. He was poisoned by mischance, as he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore there is a fatalistic element in the movie, a certain determinism which is present in many noir films.

This fatalism finds its final expressions at the end of the movie when Frank dies at the police station: The policemen don’t find it easy to explain what has happened to him and just find an easy solution to the case…

Deputy: How shall I make out the report on him, Captain?
Captain: Better make it "dead on arrival."

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Stranger on The Third Floor (Boris Ingster 1940)

Joe: “I didn’t kill him! I didn’t! I didn’t! I didn’t!”

Joe’s desperate plea for innocence can be heard loud and clear at court. However images speak louder than words in this short but great movie.

For several film critics this is the first true film noir. Indeed the camera angles, the shadows, the use of light (which reminds us clearly of the German school), the flashbacks are all typically noir. The photography by Nicholas Musuraca is a key element in the film and the scene of Mike’s nightmare is simply fascinating.

A journalist called Mike Ward (John McGuire) declares in court as a witness of a crime. As a result of his testimony a man called Joe is wrongly sentenced to death. Some days after he sees a stranger around the guesthouse where he lives. He tries to follow him but the stranger escapes.

Later he is also wrongly accused of killing a man sleeping in the room next to his. So Mike is now a victim of the system that had wrongly condemned Joe.

Mike’s girlfriend, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), comes across the stranger – an insane man evaded from the mental hospital and the case is “happily solved”.

Jane: Why do they want to lock you up?
The Stranger: So they can hurt me. They put you in a shirt with long sleeves and they pour ice water on you.

However in spite of the “happy end” we can’t forget the atmosphere of ambiguity present in all the movie. The vision of justice is also negative (the absent minded judge and the sleeping member of the jury are two evident metaphors of its faults). Moreover the successful reporter sometimes seems as hysterical as the insane man…

We also have to point out the excellent performance of Peter Lorre as the stranger – an enigmatic presence which seems to be hidden in every shadow, at every corner of the staircase…

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Nick: Why do they wanna kill ya?
Swede: I did something wrong - once.

Pete Lunn – also known as the Swede – is leading a quiet life in a New Jersey village called Brentwood. He works at a gas station and somebody arrives… The past emerges with full force to shade his present life (the comparison with Out of the Past becomes evident).

At the beginning of the film two hard-boiled gunmen arrive at Brentwood, they want to kill the Swede. We see him in his room in the shade, he is expecting them and there is nothing he tries to do to avoid being killed. His colleague Nick tries to help him in vain:

Nick: Isn't there something I could do?
Swede: There ain't anything to do.
Nick: Couldn't you get out of town?
Swede: No. I'm through with all that runnin' around.

So the start of the film is magnificent – with sharp dialogues (they successfully reproduce a short story by Ernst Hemingway) and also great light angles.

The investigations of insurance agent Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) take us to different flashbacks. The atmosphere is always one of a vague uncertainty and the femme fatale Kitty Collins becomes the central figure of a series of double-crossings. The Swede – a former boxer - feels a strong attraction for her after she sees her sing: The more I know of love (written by Miklos Rosza).

The Swede becomes involved in criminal activities together with Colfax, Big Jim and Kitty. It is the femme fatale who double-crosses everybody: I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me!

There were many important names who came together at this film. We can mention the – at the time – unknown Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner; but also producer Mark Hellinger, musician Miklos Rozsa or director Robert Siodmak were very important names in the noir style

Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis 1950)

Annie Laurie Starr: Bart, I've been kicked around all my life, and from now on, I'm gonna start kicking back.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the early life of Bart Tare (John Dall) – a sharpshooter. He meets Annie Laurie Star (Peggy Cummings), a strong-willed and ambitious woman.

They begin a series of bank robberies - a special mention should be made to the bank heist sequence which was shot in just one long take. Gradually they become outcast characters blinded by they desire to be together and their ambition - there is a strong relationship between guns and sex all along the story: As Bart states - We go together, Annie. I don't know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together

Annie Laurie could seem a femme fatale – the original movie title would point in that direction - in the sense that she drags Bart to destruction, - as Bluey-Bluey says: she ain't the type that makes a happy home. However she also feels love for him. It’s their passion that leads them to destruction.

Therefore the fugitive couple are doomed by their destructive love, by the spinning violence. Bart tries to go back to his hometown, to his childhood but he can’t find salvation there either.

As in other noir films nature is the last shelter where the characters try to escape from the corruption of the city. However trackers manage to follow them and they die there – just like Roy Earle in High Sierra or Eddie and Jo in You Only Live Once

Monday, 3 March 2008

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks 1946)

General Sternwood: Ugh. Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

The rotten sweetness of corruption – like an orchid perfume – is present all along this film. This Howard Hawks film is one of the most powerful and complex noir movies of all times. A number of murders make it almost impossible to figure out the full plot of the story, we – like the hard boiled private eye Philip Marlowe - are lost in a world of ambiguity and chaos (it was said that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t explain some of the details of the plot).

The characters – gangsters, femmes fatale - and their confrontations are also a key part of the movie the story. Philip Marlowe has find out about the activities the Sternwood sisters are into: “I assume they have all the usual vices, besides those they've invented for themselves” their father says.

This interaction between the main characters is dotted with witty, sharp dialogues, often filled with sexual connotations – especially in the Bogart – Bacall scenes:

Marlowe: You've got a touch of class, but I don't know far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

The chemistry between these two stars is one of the strong points of the film:

Vivian: You've forgotten one thing - me.
Philip Marlowe: What's wrong with you?
Vivian: Nothing you can't fix.

But The Big Sleep is much more than a Bogart – Bacall movie. It’s one of the noir masterpieces with a superb atmosphere and great supporting performers. From Martha Vickers (Carmen Sternwood), Elisha Cook Jr (Harry) or Charles Waldron (General Sternwood) to such a minor role as Joy Barlowe’s as a taxi driver:

Taxi driver: If you can use me again sometime, call this number.
Philip Marlowe: : Day and night?
Taxi driver: Uh, night's better. I work during the day

Besides the afore mentioned performances I have always liked the Dorothy Malone part in her brief appearance as a bookstore manager

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur 1947)

Ann Miller: She can't be all bad. No one is.
Jeff Bailey: Well, she comes the closest.

Few films are more representative of the noir style than Out of the Past. Most of the subjects we can find in the Film Noir can be traced in this movie.

The film – based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring – highlights the contrast between the city (associated with corruption and evil) and the purity of the countryside.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) tries to start a new life in the countryside and escape from his past. However one of the gunmen sent by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) finds him and a long flashback – another key element in noir films – will show us the troubles Jeff had been into. The day-lit countryside will soon be replaced by the night and the city.

The past will get into his present life just as his angelical girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) will soon be overshadowed by Kathie (Jane Greer acting as a fascinating femme fatale).

Soon we can feel that everything is lost for Jeff and that he is just spinning to his final fate – a naturalistic approach is also quite common in noir movies. Kathie drags him – there is a romantic and fatalistic quality in their love - to his end in a destructive passion “We deserve each other” Jeff tells her.

The photography by Nicholas Musuraca highlights the poetic, naturalistic aspects of this film. The dialogues are witty and sharp and the performances are superb. Out of the past is the best remembered movie by Jacques Tourneur: We are facing a masterwork full of the essence of film noir.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

This gun for hire (Frank Tuttle 1942)

Willard Gates: Don't you trust me?
Philip Raven: Who trusts anybody?

Ruthless killer Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) has just finished a “job”. He has got rid of a blackmailer and he is paid with “hot” money. Willard Gates (Laird Cregor), the man who had hired him is involved in a plot to sell poison gas to the nazis. Gates himself, who is also a night club owner, reports Raven to the police.

Raven, escaping from the police, takes a train to L.A. to revenge from Gates. During the journey he meets Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) a night club artist who is going to perform at Gates’ club. Ellen’s boyfriend (Robert Preston) is a police lieutenant that’s after the killer.

Raven takes Ellen as a hostage and slowly a feeling of sympathy grows between them.
Although they belong to different sides there is a growing complicity between Ellen and Raven. In a way she is a femme fatale who gets involved in the killer's life, but she also redeems him and makes him more humane.

There is an atmosphere of moral ambiguity as the film develops. We progressively see Raven as a victim rather than as a cold-blood killer. He has been an ill-treated, isolated character since his early childhood. Probably that’s why he has a liking for cats: “they don’t need anybody”. He is also highly individualistic:

Ellen Graham: Why don't you go to the police?
Philip Raven: I'm my own police

The film is based on Graham Greene’s novel “A Gun for Sale” and noir style novelist W.R Burnett worked in the script.

We have to highlight J. F. Seitz photography. The dark shots in the gas works and at the freight yard are unforgettable.

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake’s ambiguous performances are another key point in the film. In fact we are facing one of the classic noir best known couples in their best movie.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick 1955)

Davy Gordon: It's crazy how you can get yourself in a mess sometimes and not even be able to think about it with any sense-and yet not be able to think about anything else. …Anyway, I think that's the way it began for me. Just before my fight with Rodriguez three days ago...

Davy (Jamie Smith) introduces us to the plot of the film (through a typically noir flashback). He is an unsuccessful boxer. He lives in a block of flats and from his window he can often see Irene (Gloria Pace), a dancer in a rundown club.

Her elder boss Vincent Rapallo (Frank Silveira) is in love with her. After being refused by Irene he attacks her but Davy witnesses the scene and rushes to help her neighbour. The couple fall in love and plan to leave the city and move to Seattle but Vincent hasn’t given up he is planning his revenge…

This is Kubrick’s second long movie (though it is just one hour long) and the last one with his own script. It was a low budget film – as Kubrick said: Different people gave me backing for Killer's Kiss, which also lost half of its forty-thousand-dollar budget” and no first line actors could be hired.

The film is not one of the director’s best but it was an important step for the director: “I was cameraman, director, editor, assistant editor, sound effects man -- you name it, I did it. And it was invaluable experience”. The highly contrasted black and white scenes have some striking moments. Kubrick’s imprint can be traced in some sequences – we can mention the final scene with the fighting among the mannequins...

Davy: Anyway, I guess the whole thing was pretty silly... know a girl for two days and fall in love.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

Marie: …”just rushing toward death

Marie's remark to Roy defines his doomed character. Gangster Roy Earle is taken out of prison by Big Mac, an old colleague who wants him to participate in a hold-up.

Just out of the prison Earle wants to go to the park to see “if the grass is still green and the trees still grow”. There is a big contrast between country and city in all the film: The country stands for freedom and the purity of man while the city is a symbol of corruption – an idea that will be present in other noir films.

Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Roy Earle – a hardboiled gangster with good feelings (the movie was a turning point in Bogart’s career). In fact we see him as a good-hearted man longing for purity – in nature, in his vision of Velma – the lame girl he helps…

Roy has to take part in a robbery in Tropic springs – then he will be able to return to the simple life he lived as a boy in Indiana. However things go wrong and he ends up chased by the police in the high sierra. His final companions, Marie (Ida Lupino) and Pard – a dog that brings bad luck to his owners - see him die and also become "free" in a dramatic ending.

The film was produced by Mark Hellinger and the script was written by John Huston and William Ripley Burnett. These names would be important in future noir films. In the same way actors like Cornel Wilde (Mendoza) or Barton McLane (Kramer) would appear in other noir movies.

Maybe High Sierra is not strictly a noir film but it was one of the key movies in the transition from gangster pictures to noir movies.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Detour (E. G. Ulmer, 1945)

Al Roberts: That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.

There is a fatalistic quality in Detour. In fact the movie is like a nightmare: The events seem to roll inevitably to a fatal end. The film opens with a road… in a bar Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hears the song I can’t believe you’re in love with me and his thoughts are taken to the past.

He had begun a hitch-hiking trip from New York to L.A. (where his girlfriend was waiting for him). A driver called Charles Haskell Jr. offered to take him directly to LA. However his sudden death took Al by surprise:

Al Roberts: (narrating the story) Until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I'd picked for myself.

Thinking that the police will never believe his version and he may be accused of murder he hides the body and goes away with the car using Haskell's identity. Later he gives a lift to Vera (Ann Savage) who happened to know Charles and blames Al for his death… He is trapped by her and is just a puppet in her hands..

Vera’s accidental death is another destiny trap surrounding Al. The narrator is always surrounded by a dark or foggy atmosphere and never seems to have a chance:

Al Roberts: Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

Michael O’Hara: That's how I found her, and from that moment on, I did not use my head very much, except to be thinking of her.

Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) meets Elsa Banister (a really beautiful short-haired Rita Hayworth) in Central Park.

O’Hara is hired as a sailor by the Bannister family and soon they set off for a pleasure cruise to Acapulco (a getaway setting for many noir films).

Irish sailor O’Hara soon realises that Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), his partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) and his wife are like sharks ready to destroy each other: you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight.

Later Grisby makes a strange proposition to O’Hara. Grisby himself should be killed and the sailor would receive $5000. O’Hara is willing to accept so he could run away with Elsa but in fact she is the femme fatale behind the plot…

The film is certainly a masterpiece with many of Welles’ trademarks (camera angles, a complex story, baroque settings… - the scenes at the aquarium and at the amusement park are unforgettable). Some critics may argue that the plot is complicated and nonsense but as Francois Truffaut once wrote: "The only raison d'etre for The Lady from the cinema itself".

The final scene in the hall of the mirrors is one of the best remembered in film history… Bannister is killed and Elsa is also left to die alone… Like the sharks, mad with their own blood. Chewing away at their own selves.

Michael O'Hara: Maybe I'll live so long that I'll forget her. Maybe I'll die trying.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

He ran all the way (John Berry 1951)

Nick Robey: “...but I am running so hard in this dream…”

At the beginning of the film Nick Robey (John Garfield) wakes up from a nightmare – he was running… he feels he won’t be lucky that day..

On the same day he takes part in an payroll robbery in which a man is seriously wounded. Running away from the police he goes to a pool where he meets Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters). After a friendly conversation Peggy takes him to her apartment. Nick is thinking about the robbery and the wounded man and he is wondering what to do next. When Peg’s parents and younger brother return home at night Nick thinks they know about his criminal deed. Then Nick’s paranoia increases and he takes Peg and her family as hostages while he is hoping to find a way to escape.

But Nick is doomed and his dream of running all the way comes true…

In the film Nick is portrayed as a hunted man, victim of the rejection of society rather than as a cold criminal.

In the same sense the film is also a symbol of the career and status of John Garfield, a great actor that had taken part in many noir films. His political ideas had put him in the spotlight of the MacCarthy witch hunt campaign. One year after making this film he died of a heart attack. It wasn’t only him that had been blacklisted, director John Berry and the screenwriters (Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler) had also been in political trouble and had to be exiled – part of this paranoia is in a way present in the film. In this context the death of Nick in the gutter is a highly symbolic image…

Wednesday, 2 January 2008


A dark street, shadows, men and women fighting against their fate... this is for me the essence of film noir.
It's true that film noir deals about many unpleasant subjects: murder, dishonesty, betrayal... However the classic movies we are referring to have a high aesthetic quality and elegance.

The movies we are going to write about in those pages are filled with different characters: private investigators, femmes fatale, outlaws, people escaping form their past or from a nightmare… It all forms a fascinating universe of its own which is worth exploring…