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.