a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Catching up, Part Two: Films Noir

I’m about halfway through Warner’s new noir set (their fourth), and I have to say that it’s just the bee’s knees. There might have been some worry because, save They Live By Night (and maybe the Don Siegel-Robert Mitchum mash-up The Big Steal), there are no heavy-hitters. No wonder it comes with ten features (a fucking steal even at the full $60 listing price). But each film has either been really, very good or flat-out blown me away, no less because I knew so little about them. Who knew Fred Zinnemann, the tasteful workhorse of High Noon, Oklahoma! and A Man For All Seasons, was capable of a knotty great like Act of Violence?

I’ve been plowing through them, so let’s keep this appropriately short:

Crime Wave (1954, André de Toth) Never seen de Toth before, but based on this one, no less than House of Wax is already near the top of my Queue. Cheap, stark and stripped-down, it’s shot mostly in single takes featuring lots of harsh lighting and blocked perspectives, giving it a kind of exaggerated doc-like feel. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Nouvelle Vague bowed before it. Gene Nelson, best known as a hoofer (in Oklahoma!, for one), is suitably intense, though his innate decency - combined with the ruthlessness with which Sterling Hayden (awesome, as ever) pursues him -- grows wearying even over the (tight) 74 minutes. Ending either disappointingly pat or unique -- can’t decide. B+

Where Danger Lives (1950, John Farrow) Farrow was a Roman Catholic convert, and it shows: Robert Mitchum’s sweet-natured doctor descends into a nightmare just at the thought of bedding Faith Domergue, and that’s before he even knows she’s married. Like D.O.A. (haven’t seen), this movie has such a great hook and it really doesn’t spoil it. Essentially, Mitchum is thonked over the head by Dommergue’s older husband Claude Rains (who just murders his one scene) and spends the rest of the movie becoming increasingly woozy from his concussion, all the while going from swanky urban life to desolate Nowhere America. The climactic long take - e, like those in Children of Men, all the more impressive because you don’t realize they’re long takes till you’re well into them - is a doozy, but so is one bit of shot-reverse-shot that, at the end, is revealed to have both characters looking in different places. A-

Act of Violence (1949, Fred Zinnemann) As with the above, great existential/philosophical plot not remotely screwed up. Doesn’t even take the easy route with the ending. Van Heflin, after the obscure spag western The Ruthless Four, quickly becoming a favorite. A-

Side Street (1949, Anthony Mann) Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell back again. It’s no They Live By Night, though by design: O’Donnell is very much in the background, with more focus on the supporting characters. But she’s essential, since she and Granger have a bond that is childlike and so deeply affecting that all they have to do is swap puppy dog eyes and I tear up. (Too bad Granger couldn’t always act with her.) Above all, one of the great NYC movies, with one of the all-time best punchlines: “Made in Hollywood.” B+

Tension (1949, John Berry) Audrey Totter was the best part of Robert Montgomery’s apocalyptically wrongheaded Lady in the Lake stab, and she’s about as great here as a chilly fatale, essentially playing Marie Windsor to Richard Basehart’s Elisha Cook, Jr. in Kubrick’s The Killing. Abandoning Basehart in the second half in favor of Barry Sullivan’s dic -- the narrator inserting himself into the story as a third variable, as it were -- is a ballsy move. Sadly, I didn’t fully come along, no less because Sullivan’s smugness upended the whole enterprise. We know he’ll succeed, whereas we at least have our doubts about Basehart. Totter’s bulging eyes compensate mucho. B

Decoy (1946, Jack Bernhard) The real cheapie so far -- produced by Poverty Row annex Monogram - and a sufficiently twisty, resourceful one. Jean Gillie is an anomaly in noir -- a Brit whose cool detachment masks not fragility but a complete lack of compassion or selflessness. (Great tagline: "She Treats Men the Way They've Been Treating Women For Years!") When she cackles madly at the end, it’s just earth shattering. I can see how people would read about this for years without seeing it, and could even delude themselves into not being completely disappointed. But it’s a touch too plot-heavy for my tastes and noble old Edward Norris is a bit of a drag. Awesome touch: POV shot of a guy inside a working gas chamber. B+

Still to Go: Mystery Street, Illegal, /They Live By Night/, /The Big Steal/



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