Friday, May 30, 2014


Curtis Bernhardt, 1945
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Alexis Smith

“A thought can be like a malignant disease.”

While Richard and Kathryn seem to be happily married, Kathryn knows that he is in love with her sister, the younger, pretty Evelyn. Kathryn, who nags and bosses him about in private, declares that she will never give him a divorce. Soon after, Richard, Evelyn, and Kathryn are all in a car accident, though only Richard is injured and suffers from a broken leg. He uses this to his advantage to set up an elaborate alibi. He has Kathryn drive to their country home by herself, but drives ahead of her, while everyone thinks he is wheelchair bound. He kills Kathryn, pushing her car down the cliff, and leaves no evidence. He appears distraught, but begins to woo Evelyn, despite the interruptions of their psychologist friend, Professor Holdsworth. Unfortunately for Richard, it seems that Kathryn is still alive and he grows increasingly paranoid…  

Though not widely known, this middle of the road Humphrey Bogart effort came out around the same time as Casablanca, but just before the actor’s major rise to fame. A strong performance from Bogie, great atmosphere, and some interesting noir elements make the film worth watching, despite some fairly obvious plot flaws. Conflict would have been a more successful film if the script had been more complex and the characters more fleshed out. Early after Kathryn’s murder, there is the hint that she might be a ghost returned to haunt Richard (the scene with the perfume), but more of this would have gone a long way. Four other interesting possibilities include:
A) A reason to believe that someone might be blackmailing Bogie
B) A reason to believe that the wife might still be alive a la Diabolique
C) If it seemed like Bogie’s character was really going mad, or
D) If Evelyn was involved in the scheme in some way

The plot is both full of holes and incredibly far-fetched. In order to catch a killer, the police set up a complicated sting involving a network of people and follow the orders of a psychologist? This seems unlikely. The police obviously don’t have to be involved, as there are plenty of other films from this period where a civilian discovers a murderer.

None of the characters are remotely developed, which really hurts the film. No one’s motivations are clear. Did Richard really kill his wife just because she nags him and said she wouldn’t get a divorce? This seems like a thin excuse, unless there are other scenes (like In a Lonely Place) that make Bogart’s character seem like a deeply unhinged psychopath. And why does he love Evelyn? Even one scene establishing this relationship would have been helpful, rather than an expository moment where the wife tells us that she knows about Richard’s secret feelings. I feel like I’ve spent most of the review so far re-writing the script for Conflict, but it really is a frustrating effort that has potential it never quite delivers. There are a few moments where the film feels almost Hitchcockian and more of these would have made it a classic entry in the Bogart canon.

Probably the most effective scene in the film is the murder, where a menacing-looking Bogart steps out from behind the trees and walks up an isolated, mist-covered mountain road to kill his panicking wife. Curiously, Bogart and co-star Alexis Smith (Evelyn) also appeared together in another spousal murder-fueled noir, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, a similarly plotted tale where Bogart murders his wife to pursue Smith’s character.

Though Smith is lovely, she isn’t given a lot to do. Her expressions range from concerned to contrite, to innocent, and I suspect she would have had a lot more to offer with a meatier script. Charles Drake (Star Trek) barely appears on screen as her wholesome suitor and it’s a shame that the script didn’t bother developing why she would prefer one man over another, or really what her feelings are at all.

Next to Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet makes the film worth checking out, even though he has an equally bland role as the sympathetic psychologist. He manages to shine in one his only good guy roles opposite Bogart, and imparts some of his unique brand of droll, if slightly suggestive humor.

Like so many Hollywood directors during the ‘40s and ‘50s, director Curtis Bernhardt was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. in the ‘30s after fleeing the Nazis. He directed Bette Davis in A Stolen Life and Joan Crawford in Possessed. Crawford was initially intended to star as Kathryn in Conflict, but when she read the script, Crawford allegedly responded that she never dies in movies and never loses her man. And speaking of Germans, this story is oddly based on “The Pentacle,” by noir director Robert Siodmak and German writer Alfred Neumann. I’ve never read the original, but there is certainly some ridiculous Freudianism at work in the film.

On a final note, there was an interesting overlap in Bogart’s personal life with Conflict. During shooting, Bogart was married to the violent, drunken Mayo Methot. Within a year or so, he would meet the love of his life and divorce Methor for Lauren Bacall. Bogie and Bacall kept their early relationship secret, as his fights with Methor were legendary around Hollywood. She was incredibly abusive towards Bogart and went so far as to stab him, set their house on fire, and attempted to kill herself several times.

Though Conflict isn’t going to knock anyone’s socks off, it’s an interesting effort with some great atmosphere. It also has Bogie in one of his few bad guy roles and Greenstreet as a rare good guy. After a number of years, the film is finally available on a barebones DVD. It’s sold on Amazon -- I had a hell of a time renting it and simply had to buy it. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Raoul Walsh, 1941
Starring: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy

The notorious criminal Roy “Mad Dog” Earle is released from prison thanks to the efforts of his boss, Big Mac, a gangster. Mac wants Earle on one last job, a heist near the Sierra Nevada mountains. His companions will be three younger men named Mendoza, Red, and Babe; they have brought an attractive dancer named Marie with them. She convinces Earle to let her stay and becomes attracted to him, though he does not reciprocate her feelings.

During his travels, Earle meets a family whose youngest member, the lovely, innocent Velma, has a clubbed foot. He bonds with the family and comes to love Velma, eventually paying for corrective surgery. He visits Velma after her recovery and she is whimsical, brash, and only interested in her rude fiancé from back east. When he discovers Velma’s true nature, Earle finally opens his eyes to Marie and they fall in love. They begin an impromptu family with a small dog they have adopted. Unfortunately, the heist goes wrong — Red and Babe die and Mendoza rats Earle out to the police. The police begin to hunt him through the mountains, where Marie hopes he will escape. 

In the same situation as The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart’s They Drive By Night costar George Raft was originally intended for the role of Roy Earle. Bogart convinced him to turn it down, because Bogie desperately wanted to play Earle. Along with Falcon, it would help boost him to fame, though he had to convince director Raoul Walsh that he could handle the part. He certainly succeeded, as his portrayal of Earle helps elevate the film from its B-movie status. Earle is likable, tough but sensitive, and is sympathetic despite being a hardened criminal. 

Here Bogart also worked his lifelong friend and occasional filmmaking partner, director John Huston. Huston was then primarily known as a screenwriter and co-wrote High Sierra with W.R. Burnett, the original novel’s author. Burnett was also known for Little Caesar and other gangster films. High Sierra has elements of the western to it, despite the fact that it stars a gangster, bears a relationship to early film noir, and is part heist flick. The rural mountain setting, actually filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is isolated and isolating, though it draws Earle to specific characters. He has something of a cowboy feel about him. He’s a tough yet romantic loner; he’s romanticized by the film and the other characters, though he clearly longs for a pre-urban domestic bliss that does not seem to exist in his world. His character was loosely inspired by the oddly beloved criminal John Dillinger, though the Hays Code insisted that Earle was punished at the film’s conclusion with either death or imprisonment.

This was the last time in his career that Bogart wasn’t given top billing; he was ranked underneath his They Live By Night co-star Ida Lupino, despite the fact that Bogie’s clearly the star. Lupino is excellent as Marie, the good-hearted gangster’s moll. She’s a curiously independent character, asserting herself from the very beginning and proving to Earle that she is smarter and tougher than her male companions. She faithfully, doggedly pursues Earle even though he isn’t initially interested. Lupino did play femme fatale characters throughout her career (as she does in They Live By Night), but more often she chose these unique, independent roles, where she portrayed strong women able to go toe-to-toe with the male characters.

The supporting cast is nearly equally as strong, though Bogart and Lupino eat up most of the running time. Alan Curtis (Phantom Lady) and Arthur Kennedy (Rancho Notorious), not strangers to the film noir world, are mostly forgettable as Red and Babe, partly because they pale in comparison to Lupino. The innocent-looking Joan Leslie (Yankee Doodle Dandy) is likable as lovely, though handicapped Velma. Whether through a brilliant script choice or Leslie’s acting, there’s a wonderful scene where Velma becomes more than just a vulnerable, fantasy woman and, in the process, breaks Earle’s heart. Universal horror veterans Henry Hull (Werewolf of London), as the helpful surgeon, and Henry Travers (The Invisible Man, Shadow of a Doubt), as the lovable Pa, are both very memorable and help flush out some of the film’s other interesting personalities.

There are noir elements to High Sierra, even if this isn’t quite a film noir. There are two very complicated female characters (Marie and Velma), a central heist, double-crossing friends, a deeply cynical antihero, a sense of doomed fate, and a tragic conclusion. All of these elements are critical to High Sierra’s tense plot and depressing after taste, though they would go on to more nihilistic depths throughout the classic film noir period.

High Sierra is available on DVD and comes highly recommended, particularly to anyone who thinks a blend of western, noir, and Bogart is up their alley. The film was remade twice, first as Colorado Territory (1949), oddly directed again by Raoul Walsh, and later as I Died a Thousand Times (1955) with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters (yowza, what a title).

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


John Huston, 1941
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet

“When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.”

Sam Spade, a P.I. in San Francisco, begins to investigate when his partner is killed. Their most recent client, a Miss Wonderly, is searching for her missing sister, who was allegedly in the company of a man named Floyd Thursby. Spade’s partner was last seen on Thursby’s tail. The police are suspicious of Spade, because he was having an affair with his partner’s needy, unscrupulous wife. 

During his somewhat lackluster investigation, Spade discovers that Miss Wonderly is really named Brigid O’Shaughnessy and is not searching for a missing sister — Thursby was her partner and they were on the trail of something valuable. He learns more when a suspicious man named Joel Cairo hires him to find a “black bird” statue, and he later learns that Cairo is working for the “Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman. Gutman, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy are all criminals, double-crossers playing a dangerous game, hoping to find the falcon statue first. Spade learns about the arrival of a freighter ship and begins to get an idea of where to find the elusive bird and rushes to get his hands on it before anyone else.

Based on Dashiell Hammet’s novel of the same name, this is my favorite adaptation of Hammett’s most popular work. Hammett himself worked as a detective with the famed Pinkerton Agency and is one of the world’s most famous writers of hardboiled and detective fiction. Much of the events and characters in The Maltese Falcon were inspired by his time in the field. Unlike Raymond Chandler’s moral, alcoholic with a heart of gold, Philip Marlowe, Hammett’s Spade is a cold bastard who doesn’t shed a tear over his partner’s murder and isn’t afraid to throw the woman he loves to the police, where she will be jailed and likely executed.

This 1941 film is actually the third version of The Maltese Falcon. It followed a pre-Code 1931 film banned from Hollywood for several years, and a comedic remake in 1936 with Bette Davis known as Satan Met a Lady. Though it is the third version, it marks several firsts. This was Humphrey Bogart’s first big role and would go on to launch his career after a decade of languishing as side characters in gangster flicks. The role of Sam Spade was originally offered to George Raft (in They Drive By Night, Bogart’s previous film), who rejected it in a series of career mistakes. He also turned down High Sierra and Casablanca; all three of these roles were passed on to Bogart and are responsible for his stardom. 

The great John Huston, who would become one of Hollywood’s finest directors, began his career as a screenwriter, but cut his teeth on directing with The Maltese Falcon. The detailed script and methodical filmmaking allowed Huston to make the movie quickly and efficiently. He got along with all the actors and the team regularly lunched and breakfasted together. He finished under budget and before schedule, a remarkable achievement for a first film. Huston and Bogart would go on to have a close friendship and working relationship, including classics such as Key Largo, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The African Queen

This was actor Sydney Greenstreet's first film, though he was an experienced stage performer. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, which he richly deserved to win. His portrayal of Gutman is certainly one of the film’s high points. Gutman’s employee, Joel Cairo, was slightly changed from the book, where he is openly depicted as a gay character. This was against the Hays Code, so actor and German expatriate Peter Lorre’s Cairo is merely portrayed as effeminate. The two actors have incredible screen chemistry and work perfectly as the lethal, but effete team of Cairo and Gutman. The Maltese Falcon was actually the first pairing of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet. They would go on to appear in Casablanca and a few other films together, while Greenstreet and Lorre were paired up nine times over the years. 

In the final first, The Maltese Falcon is often considered to be the first film noir. Both Stranger on the Third Floor (with Lorre and noir regular Elisha Cook Jr, who appears in The Maltese Falcon) and I Wake Up Screaming (again with Elisha Cook Jr) were released a year or so before The Maltese Falcon and contain an enhanced amount of what would come to be known as noir style. Though The Maltese Falcon is often considered first, both of these others are deserving of consideration, particularly the excellent and somewhat disturbing I Wake Up Screaming.

Though I have nothing bad to say about cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who has some great, suggestive shots full of odd angles and subdued lighting, I’ve always felt that The Maltese Falcon was unable to really compete with other noir classics in terms of style. I Wake Up Screaming is far more stylized and visually dramatic, while Stranger on the Third Floor is generally regarded solely for its powerful visuals. Though there is a more downbeat conclusion, this film isn’t as dark or pessimistic as many later film noir efforts. Huston, co-wrote the script, expertly used most of the dialogue from Hammett’s novel. The only major changes being that references to sex and alcohol are largely removed, due to the strictness of the Hays Code.

On a final note, the complicated plot is a joy, as it is in Hammett’s novel. The falcon itself is little more than what Hitchcock would later dub a MacGuffin, a red herring or useless object at the center of a more interesting, involved script. My only major complaint, both with the film’s plot and its acting, is Brigid O’Shaunessey. She lacks the overripe sex appeal of the character in the books (thanks again, Hays Code) and, I hate to say it, but Mary Astor is dreadful in the role. She’s the absolute worst thing about the film. She is neither lush nor sexy and instead looks like a school marm with a bad, unwashed hairdo. Astor was nearly 40 when The Maltese Falcon was made. While I have nothing against casting older actresses as characters with a lot of sex appeal (Honor Blackman will always be amazing in Goldfinger), Astor looks like someone’s mother who accidentally got involved with a gang of effeminate criminals.

Aside from Astor, who is easily ignored aside Bogart, Greenstreet, and Lorre, The Maltese Falcon comes recommended. It is a decent introduction to noir and is working picking up. It’s available on DVD and will hopefully make it to Blu-ray soon.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Raoul Walsh, 1940
Starring: George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart

Joe and Paul Fabrini are truckers desperately trying to make a name for themselves so they can work independently, but a series of obstacles fall in their way. They are screwed over by a wealthy business partner, creditors are after their truck, they get a flat tire they can’t afford to fix, and Paul is exhausted and ready to return home to his wife. On the road, they witness the accidental death of two friendly truckers, who drive off a cliff when one of them falls asleep. They also pick up a hitchhiking waitress, Cassie, who Joe quickly falls for. Though Joe has a few breaks, they get into a series accident causing Paul’s arm to be amputated. Out of guilt and desperation, Joe is forced to quit the road and take a job in L.A. 

He is soon hired by the rich and friendly Ed, a former truck driver turned successful business owner. Ed’s lustful, young wife Lana wants Joe for herself, and becomes obsessed, even getting Joe a promotion. But Joe continually rejects her because of his friendship with Ed and his budding relationship with Cassie. Lana won’t take no for an answer and kills Ed, though the police think it is an accident. She splits the business with Joe, making him an equal partner, which allows him to marry Cassie. In a rage, she admits to killing Ed and names Joe as her accomplice…

Based on the novel, The Long Haul, by A. I. Bezzerides, Raoul Walsh’s film about desperate truck drivers is a mix of early film noir and gritty realism. It is also notable for being one of Humphrey Bogart’s first major roles, allowing him to separate from the gangster films of the ‘30s and go on to the success of the early ‘40s, including The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. However Bogart is not the star here and plays second fiddle to George Raft, then known for a series of tough guy roles in gangster films. Raft is likable, but is overshadowed by Bogart, the sassy Anne Sheridan, and Ida Lupino. He had key roles in gangster films like Scarface (1932) and was a bigger name than Bogart’s in 1940, though that was soon to change. In the coming years, Raft turned down the leading roles in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca, all of which were picked up by Bogart and turned him into a star.

Part of the problem is that Raft’s milquetoast trucker, Joe, isn’t interesting enough to command the entire film. The truck-related conflicts of the first half of the film provide plenty of suspense and drama, though it seems a bit implausible that such a nice guy would want to risk everything and stubbornly stay out on the road. With numerous characters deprived of sleep, money, stability, and dignity, in many cases, They Drive By Night is the first depiction of the often brutal lives of truck drivers at a time when the industry was just developing. The road is shown as a dangerous, hostile, unpredictable place, but it is also shown as the potential path to freedom. 

The film prefigures WWII disillusionment and frustration, the striving for masculine ideals and personal economic success, themes that would be further developed in later noir films. The nihilism and despair of the years following the Great Depression are also captured here, and it fits in with the social-realist dramas produced during WWII. I recently read Ginger Strand's Killer on the Road, a study of violence and the U.S. highway system, which seemed particularly apt while I was watching this film. The book stresses that the inherent violence of the capitalist machine creates both urban and highway crime, giving rise to opportunity for drug dealing, prostitution, gang violence, and serial murder. It is easy to see the early tendrils of that developing in this film and the brothers’ greedy, capitalist debtors and business partners are certainly depicted as parasitic and destructive. There is a heroic air to the truck driving characters and many are depicted as adventurers seeking independence and fortune.

Critics tend to be divided over whether the first or second halves of the film are superior. I can see merit in both sides, though I think the first half — a gritty, realistic drama about the plight of truckers — is superior. While Ida Lupino gave a career making performance in the second half (which is a noir-like melodrama about a scorned woman setting a man up for murder), it lacks the depressing realism of the first half. Both Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart all but disappear, to the film’s detriment. Apparently plot elements from the second half were lifted from Bordertown (1935), a Bette Davis vehicle, and I just don’t think they’re a necessary addition. The film’s happy ending is equally awkward and forced. Though I really enjoyed the film, it’s a shame to consider that this could have been the very first road noir, but sadly veers into more predictable, melodramatic territory. 

While Raoul Walsh made his name directing dozens of silent films including his most famous, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), he had a lengthy career that spanned several decades and a variety of genres. He made classic gangster films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949), while also directing Bogart in They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941). His covered nearly every genre, including historical war films (They Died with Their Boots On), romance (The Strawberry Blonde), WWII films (The Naked and the Dead, Desperate Journey, and Objective, Burma!), musicals (The Horn Blows at Midnight, A Private’s Affair), westerns (Cheyenne, Silver River), adventure (Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., Blackbeard the Pirate), and many more. His excellent sense of atmosphere, pacing, and style are obvious in They Drive By Night, even though it might not be one of his most famous works.

The script is really the film’s main issue, mostly centered around the divide. There’s a somewhat predictable, dull courtroom scene and though Ida Lupino gives an excellent performance, her character’s ending hinges on some pretty silly Freudian psychobabble. Perhaps ironically, They Drive By Night boosted Ida Lupino to fame as an actress, while another film about the perils of the road, The Hitcher, was her most successful film as a director. The great supporting cast is also not to be ignored and includes Roscoe Karns (His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night) as a truck driver addicted to pinball and Alan Hale (The Sea Hawk) as the loud, jovial, and generous Ed. It’s truly shocking when Lana murders him.

Though They Drive By Night will be most appreciated by fans of classic tough guy movies and film noir, it’s worth a watch, if only for Ida Lupino’s withering performance. And though it’s hard to watch Raft steal so much screen time from Bogart, Raft was a solid actor and gave a dependable performance here. Learn more about him in George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart. They Drive By Night is available on DVD and comes recommended.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957)

Born Humphrey DeForest Bogart in New York City in 1899, the son of a relatively wealthy doctor, Bogart — or Bogie as he became known -- would go on to become one of America’s most beloved actors and a figure whose fame has amazingly increased after his death. The 
5’8” or 5’9” actor wasn’t particularly fearsome in appearance, but become known as Hollywood’s quintessential tough guy after years starring in gangster and noir films.

Bogart began his career with the Navy, eventually turning to theater in New York. During the ‘20s, he appeared regularly on Broadway until the stock market crash in 1929, when many stage actors were forced to turn their sights to Hollywood as theatrical finances dried up. Though he had somewhat of a slow start, Bogart would go on to act in more than 70 films throughout his career. 

He appeared in a number of forgettable films during his early career, such as the shorts The Dancing Town (1928) and Broadway’s Like That (1930, crime comedy Up the River (1930), adventure A Devil with Women (1930), and WWI drama Body and Soul (1931). He was in The Bad Sister (1931) with Bette Davis, about a woman’s romance with a con man, the western A Holy Terror (1931), the entertaining 20s-themed melodrama, Three on a Match (1932), and others. With Midnight (1934), he began a run of crime and gangster-themed films that would shape the rest of his career. During these early years he struck up a close friendship with actor Spencer Tracy, who he met on Broadway. Tracy gave Bogie his famous nickname.

His breakthrough performance was in The Petrified Forest (1936), where he reprised his stage role of Duke Mantee. Allegedly Bogart being cast in the role was part of the agreement when Warner Bros. bought the rights. Though he received a lot of positive critical attention and signed a deal with the studio, the film pigeonholed him in gangster films for the next several years. At this time he wasn’t allowed to choose film roles and was primarily cast as a gangster or criminal in a dizzying number of films: Bullets or Ballots (1936), Two Against the World (1936), Black Legion (1937), The Great O’Malley (1937), Marked Woman (1937), Kid Galahad (1937), San Quentin (1937), Dead End (1937), Crime School (1938), Racket Busters (1938), The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), King of the Underworld (1939), You Can’t Get Away With Murder (1939), Invisible Stripes (1939), It All Came True (1940), and Brother Orchid (1940).

During this time, Bogart was rocked by his father’s death — if you see him wearing a gold ring in a movie, it is the ring he inherited from his father — as well as his crumbling second marriage and the strain of constant work. Bogart was married four times throughout his career, each one a strong willed actress, and around this period he divorced his second wife, Mary Phillips, and married the hard-drinking, hot-tempered Mayo Methot (Marked Woman). Their fights become notorious and they were nicknamed the “Battling Bogarts,” though Mayo was allegedly the more violent partner. She allegedly stabbed Bogart, set their house on fire, and tried to kill herself a number of times

Some notable films during this period include Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), where he starred alongside gangster star James Cagney. A priest and a gangster grew up together and when they move back to the same neighborhood, the priest tries to keep the gangster from recruiting local kids into his racket. He and Cagney reunited for another gangster classic, The Roaring Twenties (1939), where three soldiers return home from WWI and try to survive during Prohibition. He also appeared in his only horror film — The Return of Doctor X (1939) — which must be seen to be believed.

His first early film noir, and one that helped him break out of the gangster mold a little, was They Drive By Night (1940), about two truck driver brothers who experience some hard luck. Bogart played second to George Raft and disappears from the second act of the film, but is memorable. This led to another hit, High Sierra (1941), where Bogart worked with writer and director John Huston. The film concerns “Mad Dog” Roy Earle, a famous criminal recently released from prison in order to take part in a heist. Here Bogart first appears as his signature characters: the tough guy with a heart of gold and a gentle, romantic streak. Huston and Bogart would go on to have a close friendship and working relationship. Ida Lupino, who co-starred as the femme fatale in They Drive By Night, returned as Bogie’s main love interest. Both would go on to have prominent, though somewhat divergent careers in film noir. 

The Maltese Falcon (1941) was another breakout hit for Bogart. He starred as writer Dashiell Hammett’s private detective Sam Spade in this hardboiled classic, which became one of the early films to influence the developing film noir movement. Spade must hunt down his partner’s killer and gets involved in the struggle for a mysterious, valuable statue. His costars, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, would appear in many films with him over the next few years.

During this period, Bogart moved away from gangster movies and toward war films and crime movies. He reunited with Peter Lorre and the great German actor Conrad Veidt (his future Casablanca costar) for All Through the Night (1941), which pits American gangsters against a secret ring of Nazis attempting to blow up the New York Harbor. He was given the starring role in The Big Shot (1942), a prison/gangster film, and reunited with Sydney Greenstreet and another Maltese Falcon co-star, Mary Astor, for the war film Across the Pacific (1942).

Greenstreet, Lorre, Veidt, and Bogart all teamed up for one of cinema’s most beloved films, Casablanca (1942). Bogart starred as Rick, the owner of a bar and casino in war-torn Morocco. Here Bogart solidified his role as the strong, tough lead, who is also vulnerable and romantic. More than any other, this is the film that transformed his career. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Bogart was nominated for Best Actor. He was also catapulted into the role of lead actor for the studio and soon after became the highest paid actor in the U.S., if not the world.

The success of Casablanca led to other war films: Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Sahara (1943), and Passage to Marseille (1943), which attempted to recreate Casablanca’s success. It marked the reunion of Casablanca actors Bogart, Claude Rains, Greenstreet, and Lorre, as well as director Michael Curtiz. It’s an excellent film and suffers only by comparison to Casablanca.

Bogart was in a combination of film noir and war flick with another classic, Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944). Based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name, it concerns a fishing boat captain who becomes involved with the French resistance in occupied France. Notably, this was his introduction to Lauren Bacall. Though he was 44 and the fledgling actress was only 19, they soon struck up a passionate relationship put on hold only because of Bogart’s marriage. He divorced Mayo Methot in 1945, and married Bacall, who he had nicknamed “Baby,” soon after. Though not without its challenging moments, their relationship quickly became the stuff of Hollywood legend and the studio was not afraid to capitalize on their obvious on- and off-screen chemistry.

At this point in his career, film noir almost completely took over. He starred in Conflict (1945) with Sydney Greenstreet, the story of a man who kills his wife to marry her sister, but is convinced that she’s come back to haunt him. This was a rare bad guy role for Bogart. Another film noir classic was The Big Sleep (1946), Bogart’s turn to play Raymond Chandler's private eye, Phillip Marlowe. While I love Bogart as Sam Spade, he really shines as Marlowe and has some wonderful scenes with Bacall. This was an excellent showcase for his rapid fire dialogue and weighty facial expressions.

In Dead Reckoning (1947), he starred as a former soldier trying to find out who murdered one of his war-time comrades. Bacall lookalike Lizabeth Scott costars. The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) shows a return to the bad guy role, where Bogart once again stars as a man who murders his wife in the hopes of marrying another woman. He and Bacall reunited onscreen for Dark Passage (1947), about a runaway fugitive who gets facial surgery to escape the wrongful conviction of — again — murdering his wife.

During this period, Bogart protested vehemently against the HUAC interrogations, but was forced to write an article, “I’m No Communist,” to keep himself from falling under suspicion. By 1947, he also had a new contract that gave him more freedom and allowed him to turn down roles. He also started his own production company, Santana Productions, named after his yacht — Bogart had a lifelong love of sailing and of the sea. Most of the films under Santana starred Bogart himself.

His star continued to rise with the release of two more classics. First came The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), a western-like adventure film about gold prospectors who travel to Mexico and the Sierra Madre Mountains. Bogie was again directed by his friend John Huston, who also helmed film noir Key Largo (1948). Bogart costarred alongside Bacall and gangster/noir star Edward G. Robinson in this tale of intrigue and murder at an isolated Florida hotel during a hurricane. 

Bogart also starred in court drama/film noir Knock on Any Door (1949), Tokyo Joe (1949), another crime thriller about a soldier returning home to a life of chaos, and the post-war film Chain Lightening (1950), where Bogart stars as a pilot trying to make his way after WWII is over. He was in the similarly themed smuggling film Sirocco (1951), set during the French occupation of Syria

Undoubtedly the finest film of his late career and the best movie produced by Santana was Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), a grim noir tale about a struggling writer who falls in love with his neighbor, a beautiful woman with a troubled past. After a young woman is found murdered, the writer is the main suspect, though his new girlfriend believes he is innocent against the odds. Bogart’s friend, actress Louise Brooks, later said that his performance as the writer Dixon Steele was the closest to the actual Bogart. In a Lonely Place was ignored at the time, but has since become considered a classic. It is my favorite of all Bogart’s films. 

He followed this with the classic, The African Queen (1951), starring for the first time alongside Kathryn Hebpurn. He reunited with his favorite director, John Huston, for this WWI drama/romance that was a success both critically and financially, but was a hellish experience involving weeks in the African jungle. He made another war-romance, Battle Circus (1953), set during the Korean war.

There were, of course, more noir films, including The Enforcer (1951), a police procedural about Murder, Inc., Deadline - U.S.A. (1952), a newspaper noir, and Beat the Devil (1953), a noir spoof that was directed by John Huston, costars, Peter Lorre, and was co-written by Truman Capote. It is one of Bogart’s lesser seen films, but has come to be regarded as something of a cult classic.

The end of Bogart’s career boasted some riskier, more unusual projects. He lowered his asking rate to star in The Caine Mutiny (1954), a war film that he was desperate to make. It was another success and shows off Bogart’s acting skills, as he portrays a WWII Naval commander who goes mad. He garnered an Academy Award nomination for the role. He also appeared in a rare romantic comedy, Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954), starring Audrey Hebpurn as a young chauffeur’s daughter who falls in love with a handsome, but reckless millionaire. His older brother (Bogart), tries to end the affair before it begins and winds up falling in love with Sabrina himself. 

The Barefoot Contessa (1954) was less well-received. Bogart starred as a director who revitalized his career by discovering a young, frivolous dancer, played by Ava Gardner. Shot in Rome, this beautiful, if flawed film was allegedly based on the tragic life of Rita Hayworth. After this, Bogart reunited with Casablanca director Michael Curtiz for We’re No Angels (1955), a comedy about escaped prisoners. In religious drama The Left Hand of God (1955), Bogarts stars as a priest newly arrived to a Catholic mission in China. He develops a mutual attraction with a young nurse, played by Gene Tierney. This was one of Bogie’s few color films.

Of course he returned to noir for his last two films, The Desperate Hours (1955), a disturbing tale of three escaped convicts invading a home. He ended a long, beloved career with The Harder They Fall (1956), about a sportswriter hired by a questionable fight promoter. During the mid-‘50s, Bogart was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, most likely thanks to a life of heavy drinking and smoking. One of his other claims to fame was that he was the founding member of the Rat Pack, which officially began in the spring of 1955 in Las Vegas. The term originated with Bacall and referred to a particularly raucous party including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, David Niven, and more. Romanoff's in Beverly Hills became their headquarters. 

He died on January 14, 1957 when he was just 57 years old. His friend Spencer Tracy was too upset to give the eulogy, so director John Huston stepped in. Over the years, Bogie has gotten numerous recognition for his talents, including a star on the walk of fame, a stamp, several Looney Tunes cartoons, and increasing fame over the years. In 2006, part of 103rd Street in New York City — just in front of Bogie’s boyhood brownstone — was renamed "Humphrey Bogart Place,” with Lauren Bacall in attendance.

To learn more about this curmudgeonly, enigmatic, and iconic man, check out this great tribute page and the official site, as well as this awesome Tumblr. For even more, there’s a biography, Bogart, by Ann Sperber. Obviously, watch all of his films staring with In a Lonely Place.

Here’s looking at you, Bogie.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


Billy Wilder, 1957
Starring: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton

"I am constantly surprised that women's hats do not provoke more murders." 

A well-known barrister, the aged and rotund Sir Wilfrid Robarts, is recovering from some time spent in the hospital. He is accompanied by a stern nurse, Miss Plimsoll, who forbids him from partaking in difficult cases, drinking, smoking, or eating rich food. But before she can voice many objections, he has taken on a new client — Leonard Vole — a man accused of killing a wealthy, older woman. Mrs. Emily French was a widow that Vole claimed to be friends with on account of her loneliness. He was also hoping to get some funding for his inventions. Vole is the number one suspect, though Sir Wilfrid is convinced of his innocence and is determined to get him a verdict of “not guilty.” But when Vole’s wife, a mysterious, unemotional German woman decides to become a witness, Sir Wilfrid smells trouble.

Based on Agatha Christie's story and play of the same name, director Billy Wilder and his co-writers enhanced the play, adding comedy and shifting the focus to Sir Wilfred as the main character. While Christie had plenty of cynicism and unpleasant characters throughout her books, Wilder also included his own sense of gloom that pervades his noir films, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, as well as The Long Weekend

While Witness for the Prosecution is not really a film noir, I’m including it in my series anyway, because it shares a few thematic elements with noir and comes at the end of Wilder’s run of particularly grim films. First and foremost, the central plot is murder. Leonard Vole, the suspect, seemingly fits in with Hitchcock’s concept of the “wrong man,” an innocent man whose life is tampered with my fate or other ominous forces and is wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit. Vole’s wife also seems to be a typical femme fatale, a beautiful, mysterious, selfish, and motivated woman willing to double cross anyone to get what she wants. Wilder eventually reveals that he’s putting a twist on these well-loved formulas, and with pleasing results. The film ends with a voice over asking the audience not to reveal the ending, so I’m going to try not to give away too many spoilers here.

The script balances suspense and humor and feels something like Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry or Family Plot, as it is a mix of the mundane, the whimsical, and the macabre. Incredibly successful, Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for six Academy Awards, though Dietrich was bafflingly ignored. From the script to the acting and lovely visuals, the film has few flaws. Though Wilder was often accused of being a bland stylist in favor of robust storytelling, Witness looks great, thanks to cinematographer Russell Harlan and designer Alexander Trauner.

Trauner used much of the budget to create a believable facsimile of Old Bailey, because they were not allowed to film inside the real courthouse. Trauner regularly worked with Wilder and made a name working on Children of Paradise (1945) in occupied France, where he was forced to stay undercover due to his Judaism. He also spent a hefty amount of money creating Dietrich’s bombed out German bar, where she sings as American sailors grope her and rip her pants, trying to see more of her scintillating flesh.

Dietrich gave one of her last performances and is as great as ever. Though Hollywood stars and occasional noir actresses Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth were considered for the role, Wilder chose Dietrich, who he had collaborated with previously on A Foreign Affair. She is magnificent, as always, and her strong performance lends credibility to the film’s dizzying twist ending. Dietrich’s disguise design was allegedly assisted by Orson Welles, who was well-versed in changing the appearance of his face for various film and theatre roles. The flashback scene showing how Leonard met Christine — singing in a crumbling nightclub during the war — is classic Dietrich and proves that no matter how she had aged by this point, she was still fascinating, beautiful, and charismatic.

Unlike Dietrich, actor Charles Laughton had more connections with horror than with film noir. He starred in the first, stunning adaptation of The Island of Doctor MoreauIsland of Lost Souls — and the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His sole turn as a director produced Night of the Hunter, a horror-noir hybrid that was lambasted at the time but has thankfully becomes recognized as a classic and as one of the greatest films ever made. Though Dietrich competes heartily with him, the film belongs to Laughton. His scenes with real-life wife Elsa Lanchester (famous for playing the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein) are pure joy as they exchange rapidly paced insults and moments of physical comedy.

Tyrone Power was in a memorable noir, Nightmare Alley, and is fittingly despicable in Witness for the Prosecution. He is smug, slimy, and two-faced, just handsome enough to be convincing as the wrongfully accused man. This was his last role, as he died of a heart attack soon after. All of the side performers are excellent as well, particularly Una O’Connor as a hearing-impaired maid and witness during the trial, the only actor from the stage play to reprise their role. O’Connor had already worked with Lanchester on Bride of Frankenstein and Witness for the Prosecution was her final film in a very long career. 

Witness for the Prosecution comes highly recommended. Fans of mystery, noir, and courtroom dramas will all find something to love. And if you aren’t entertained by the dual performances of Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich, then I think all hope is lost for you. Pick the film up on  Blu-ray and allow Wilder to astound you yet again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Billy Wilder, 1951
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall

Reporter Chuck Tatum drives into Albuquerque determined to get a job with the local paper, where he plans to strike gold on a big story. Though Tatum has worked for some impressive papers in the past, he has been fired from everywhere from New York to Chicago.  After working there for a year, bored out of his skull, he stumbles across a story in the desert. Leo Minosa, a local man, has become trapped during an illicit hunt for Indian artifacts in the caves. Tatum works with the crooked sheriff and manipulates both Leo and his sleazy wife Lorraine, so that the rescue effort will take longer, allowing a bigger story to emerge. Tatum strikes it rich with the story – which includes getting back his old job in New York – and turns the desert into a tourist area, complete with a carnival, rides, food, and games. But while Tatum is basking in the glory, Leo is beginning to die, still trapped in the cave…

This was director Billy Wilder’s first film without his long-time writing partner Charles Brackett and, perhaps free of the latter’s influence, it was Wilder’s darkest film to date. Unapologetically grim and caustic, Ace in the Hole criticizes America media, spectatorship, and developing trends in American culture. As a result, this was his first financial flop and it was heavily criticized at the time. Deservedly, in has been named a classic in more recent years.

Written by Wilder, who also acted as producer for the first time, Ace in the Hole is based on two similar stories. W. Floyd Collins was trapped in a Kentucky landslide in 1925 and a California toddler was trapped in an abandoned well in 1949. Both victims died before their rescue and in the case of Collins, the journalist assigned to the story – William Burke Miller – won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the vent.

Kirk Douglas is a force to behold as Charlie Tatum. He gives one of the finest performances in all of 1950s cinema, blazing a quick-talking, cynical, abrasive trail through the film that is impossible to forget once you’ve seen the film. He makes the unlikable, over-the-top Tatum into a believable character, part hard-working man in search of the American dream and part diabolical manipulator, twisting those around him to fit his doomed plan. Tatum is one of film noir’s most memorable antiheroes, whose Mephistophelean power comes mostly through speeches, his writing, and the media. His language has the ability to infect and change those around him.

Much like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, Wilder branches out from the typical noir plot-line, yet again creating his own branch in the series. While newspapermen and journalists are the subject of other films noir (Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps comes immediately to mind), Ace in the Hole is set in the desert rather than the city and the film’s moral center is Tatum’s boss, the head of an Albuquerque newspaper. The film actually bears a lot in common with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s sun-drenched, sweaty, dirty, and anxiety-inducing masterpiece, The Wages of Fear.

As with Clouzot’s dark and desperate film, Ace in the Hole is an uncomfortably scathing work. Wilder does one worse than simply skewering journalists, newspapers, and the media. He also betrays the often vile, blood thirsty nature of audiences, of the American public in general. The sweaty, consuming herds that move in to the fairground are depicted in some dazzling long shots, arriving by car and train to stake out what is essentially a helpless man’s death rattle. Reality TV is one of my least favorite things in all of media and Wilder preemptively criticizes it here. While many of his films have aged well, there is something special about Ace in the Hole, which remains a spot-on piece of social criticism. It is perhaps more apt today than it was in 1951, in the current age of 24-hour news and the constant barrage of social media.

All three of Wilder’s film noir efforts open with a similar theme: a man in a car. In Double Indemnity, Walter Neff is driving to the Dietrichson home to sell insurance. In Sunset Boulevard, Joe Gillis gets a flat tire and is forced to turn into Norma Desmond’s mansion to escape repo men. Ace in the Hole continues this theme, carrying it to greater heights. Charlie Tatum is sitting in his car while it is towed through Albuquerque. He commands the tow driver to pull over at a newspaper office and brazenly enters, as though he owns the place. This sets the tone of the film and his bravado disguises a somewhat crippled man whose vices have all but destroyed his chance at a brilliant, successful career.

Though Wilder had homicidally selfish, manipulative characters before Ace in the Hole – such as Phyllis in Double Indemnity and Norma in Sunset Boulevard – Chuck Tatum is perhaps the culmination of this. The weak male characters of both of those films are represented here by both Lorraine and Leo. Though they know at some level that Tatum is bad for them, neither of them can separate from him or write him off. Jan Sterling is great as Lorraine, Leo’s despicable wife. It is actually Lorraine’s character that makes it clear how cold and calculating Tatum actually is. He appeals to her sense of greed to get her to stay and manipulates her into playing the role of the grieving widow. When she clumsily attempts to seduce him, he turns her desire against her. He also engages in escalating physical violence against her, slapping and choking her when she wants to deviate from his plan.

The black and white cinematography from Charles Lang Jr (The Big Heat, The Magnificent Seven) is a mixture of the darkness and grime typically found in noir, combined with the harsh glare of the desert sun as it beats down upon the disgusting festivities. Wilder was known for his strength as a writer more so than as a stylist, but Ace in the Hole contains none of his supposed visual blandness. The film’s style and cinematography are absolutely spectacular and match perfectly with the subject matter.

Wilder’s writing is generally excellent, but here it is in a different class. Despite the circus of horrors that unfolds, everything feels plausible, inevitable. Tatum is somehow still likable and his pursuit of success is sympathetic, despite the fact that he is causing a man’s death and corrupting an entire population. Ace in the Hole comes with the highest possible recommendation. It is available on Blu-ray from Criterion and from Masters of Cinema in the U.K. If you haven’t seen it yet, it should go right at the top of your list.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Billy Wilder, 1950
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson

A dead man, Joe Gillis, is floating in a pool behind a mansion. Gillis’s voice begins to narrate and explain how things began six months earlier.  Joe, a screenwriter down on his luck, suffers a flat tire on Sunset Boulevard and pulls into a foreboding mansion for help. The mansion is the home of Norma Desmond, an aged but glamorous and wealthy silent film actress. She lives alone with her servant, Max, and lets Joe in because she thinks he’s an undertaker there to handle the funeral for her pet monkey. She learns he is a screenwriter and convinces him to move into a spare apartment over the garage and help her with the script that will revive both their careers. They soon begin an affair, even though she is much older than Joe, and she begins buying him things.

He is ashamed of his new life, but doesn’t know how to free himself. He soon learns that Norma is living a life of total fantasy. The studio ignores her, her servant Max is really her ex-husband and the director who discovered her, and he forges all her fan mail. Joe tries to escape, but Norma attempts suicide and he is drawn back. Soon he meets Betty, a friend’s fiancée who works at a film studio. Betty and Joe begin working on a script together late at night and start to fall in love. Norma finds out about this arrangement and her need to keep Joe to herself drives her to insanity.

Known as one of the greatest films in cinema history, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a near-perfect movie, a masterpiece of film noir, and a scathing look at the dark side of Hollywood success that seeps into every layer of the film.  The actual Sunset Boulevard has long been associated with Hollywood, early on as a production location and later as the homes for glamorous stars. There are also overlaps between star Gloria Swanson’s life and career and the character of Norma Desmond. Desmond is based on silent film actresses like Gloria Swanson and Norma Talmage, and the character was allegedly named after Talmage, actress Mabel Normand, and director William Desmond Taylor whose Hollywood murder in 1922 remains a cold case. Desmond’s iconic home is modelled after the mansions of Mae West, Norma Shearer, and Pola Negri, the latter of whom was also considered for the role.

One of America’s greatest silent directors, Erich von Stroheim, co-stars here as Norma’s ex-husband and servant. Stroheim actually directed Swanson and helped kick start her early career. Shots of their film Queen Kelly appear in Sunset Boulevard. There are numerous other Hollywood references and in-jokes. Norma performs for Joe, impersonating Charlie Chaplin in a scene that is taken from her earlier film, Manhandled (1924). The swan-shaped bed she sleeps in was shown in Phantomof the Opera (1925) and belonged to a dancer. Part of the film was shot on the Paramount back lot and several silent film stars play themselves as Norma’s aged friends and coworkers: Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, Hedda Hopper, and Cecil B. DeMille.

While Sunset Boulevard is traditionally considered a noir film, it is far from the typical noir plot. The film is about a murder – and is narrated by a dead man – but concerns the high class world of Hollywood stardom rather than the crooked plight of cops, private detectives, and criminals. Unlike many other noir films, this is saturated in wit and very black humor. It is an incredibly self-aware film, both aware of some of the noir tropes it is using and aware of the Hollywood apparatus that the film is bitterly lambasting.

Sunset Boulevard essentially lives at the intersection point between horror and noir. While there are plenty of noir films with horror elements or involving cast and crew who worked in both genres, Sunset Boulevard is the culmination of all these themes. In terms of noir, there are plenty of links between Wilder’s first classic noir, Double Indemnity, and Sunset Boulevard. The premise is roughly similar. A weak man arrives at the mansion home of a compelling, if disturbing woman and they begin an illicit affair. She has a much older husband. He knows she’s bad, but he can’t seem to separate himself from her. There is a younger woman around that helps provide perspective and is a reminder of the better life that the man could have. But he can never escape and dies at the hand of the woman.

Both male protagonists of these films are weak and ineffectual, moved by fate rather than personal action. Joe winds up at Norma’s simply because he got a flat tire and was too broke to have it fixed. Joe, like Walter, is ultimately something of a despicable, detestable character and his doomed fate is apparent. While in Double Indemnity, the film begins with an injured Walter telling his tale, Joe is outright dead, found floating in a swimming pool. William Holden is excellent, bringing charm to a fairly dour, frustrating role. He would go on to win the Academy Award for an even more difficult role in Wilder’s Stalag 17.

The two female protagonists – Norma and Phyllis – are different sides of the femme fatale. Both are murderesses and have iconic scenes on a staircase. Norma is a cross between the femme fatale and the Gothic mad woman, hidden away in a crumbling mansion. At the beginning of the film, Joe comes across her while she is preparing for a funeral, that of her pet monkey. She soon reveals her true nature: histrionic, animalistic, predatory, vampiric. She bears something in common with Gloria Holden from the earlier Dracula’s Daughter. They are both isolated, elegant, aged women teetering on the brink of madness, driven there because of complex self-mythologizing. She first confused Joe for an undertaker and lets him into the house for this reason. Like Holden’s character, she is followed and protected by a foreign, gloomy, and possessive protector who doubles as a servant. Finally, her attempts to make herself look younger are repulsive and monstrous. She spends hours stretching and masking her skin, effectively mutilating herself.

Concerned with mythology, idols, and dreams, Sunset Boulevard is similar to other noir films in the sense that it portrays the dark side of the American dream. In this case, Hollywood is shown as a version of the American dream, a fantasy of idolatry, fame, cinematic immortality, wealth, perfection, glamor, and sex appeal. The film speaks to the disposable nature of the Hollywood machine, which consumes, chews up, and discards people like a monstrous force. It is also concerned with the negative effect of turning women into stars. Obsessed with beauty, unable to grow old, retire, or give up her incessant self-mythologizing Norma Desmond is both a perpetrator and victim.

Sunset Boulevard is perhaps Billy Wilder’s finest work. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three. Barbara Stanwyck, star of Double Indemnity, famously kissed the hem of Swanson’s skirt, while producer Louis B. Mayer raged at Wilder for betraying Hollywood. He worked with some of his closest collaborators, including cinematographer John F. Seitz. Art Director Hans Dreier came from German studio UFA, where he worked on The Scarlet Empress. When he moved to the U.S., he contributed to several noir films, including Wilder’s Double Indemnity. This was the last film that Wilder worked on with his long running writer partner, Charles Brackett. I’ve heard that the reason they split up after this film is because Brackett wanted it to be a comedy with a happy ending for all. Instead, the sense of doom is overwhelming, claustrophobic.

Sunset Boulevard comes with the highest possible recommendation and is both a classic noir and American cinema. Available on special edition DVD and Blu-ray, the best way to see it is in a theater, but take whatever you can get. Seriously, if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Billy Wilder, 1945
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry

"One drink's too many, and a hundred's not enough."

Don Birnam, an alcoholic writer, is supposed to go on a long, dry trip with his brother for a four-day weekend in the country. Wick, his brother, and Helen, his girlfriend, come to see him off and are skeptical that he isn’t hiding liquor somewhere. He convinces them everything is fine and the two of them attend a quick concert before Don and Wick’s train ride that evening. While they are gone, Don happens to find $10 hidden in the kitchen and immediately uses it to buy two bottles of alcohol and get a few shots at the neighborhood bar. This results in him missing the trip and going on a weekend-long bender, where he manages to give Helen the slip and hit absolute rock bottom. He is hung over, increasingly sick, steals, and winds up in hospital ward specifically for alcoholics. Will anything be able to make Don stop drinking?

Director Billy Wilder was allegedly inspired to make this film after his work with alcoholic novelist Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity. His regular writing partner, Charles Brackett, considered Double Indemnity too lurid (though he co-wrote The Lost Weekend). Wilder was able to recognize Chandler’s powerful talent, despite the fact that the two did not get along. He claimed he made The Lost Weekend to show Chandler a portrait of himself.

Though this is not a film noir, I think it belongs in my series because of two elements: the style and the subject matter. First and foremost, the look of the film is incredible. Wilder decided to forgo the studio set and it was shot on the streets of New York with cameras allegedly hidden in empty trucks and in buildings to give the film the most realistic feel possible. It really paid off and The Lost Weekend is an absolutely beautiful, if grimy, alcohol-soaked look at New York in the ‘40s. The wave of postwar realism is certainly a factor in noir films (director Jules Dassin’s work springs to mind) and it is utterly convincing here.

Wilder’s regular collaborators – cinematographer John F. Seitz and composer Miklós Rózsa – are in rare form here. Seitz’s gloomy, atmospheric cinematography rivals the work he did in Double Indemnity and New York is truly a place of terror and defeat. Milland is constantly obscured by shadow, while the camera lovingly frames and caresses a bottle of booze, a shot of whiskey. Rózsa’s eerie score was the first to ever use a Theremin. This incredible work is nightmarish and adds to the dreamlike, occasionally surreal quality of the film. He would use the same instrument soon after on his equally chilling score for Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

The tone is incredibly dark and depressing, hopeless, and nihilistic. Though there are two romantic scenes, they certainly aren’t able to break through the gloom and almost feel pointless. It’s unclear why Helen is so attached to Don, though it’s easy to assume that his charm and intelligent while sober helped to win her over. There are some very disturbing moments, such as when Don wakes up in the hospital – the legendary Bellevue Asylum – and when he is consumed by delirium tremens and hallucinates. A mouse crawls out of one of the walls in his apartment and is attacked by a bat; blood drips down the wall.

This horrific moment is underlined by the feeling – especially during the second half of the film – that violence could erupt at any moment. Part of the genius of the script is that the further Don recedes into his downward spiral, he moves further from a state of civilized humanity. He is somewhat aggressively thrown out of a bar and later robs a liquor store. This escalates to his time in Bellevue, where the other patients become violent. In a terrifying scene, one of them must be removed. The question of whether or not Don will harm himself, a stranger, or even Helen, constantly hangs in the air.

Despite the taboo subject matter, the film was a smash hit and also cleaned up critically. Star Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) won Best Actor at the Academy Awards and Wilder won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenwriter. At the very first year of the Cannes Festival, the film also won the Grand Prix (the first version of the Palme d’Or) and Milland again won Best Actor.

As with Double Indemnity, Wilder had some trouble casting the film due to the subject matter. A young Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) eventually took the role and wound up winning an Oscar for his incredible performance. He is wonderful as Don, though Milland himself was practically a non-drinker. Allegedly writer Charles Jackson – the film is based on his book of the same name – gave him some coaching on how to accurately portray alcoholism.

Though the film belongs to Milland, the small supporting cast is excellent. Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession) is likable as Helen and not overly saccharine. Don’s stern, worn out brother is played by a fittingly stern Phillip Terry (Born to Kill) and Howard Da Silva (They Live By Night) absolutely shines as the gruff, but understanding bartender.

The Lost Weekend comes highly recommended. It bears certain similarities to Double Indemnity. Both had difficult casting processes, both were nearly shut down by the Hayes Code, and both were created seemingly by Wilder’s sheer force of will. As with Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend was based on a novel. Though Charles Jackson’s autobiographical book is even grimmer in tone, the film remains largely faithful. The only serious change was in the story’s conclusion, which ends on a tentatively positive note in the film. Though Don appears to have given up drinking, nothing about this feels permanent. The film also leaves out any references to homosexuality or sexual repression, making Don a fairly asexual figure.

The film is available on region 1 DVD, though the release is nothing special. The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray comes highly recommended, though it is only a region B release. Either way, The Lost Weekend is one of the best – and darkest – films of the ‘40s. You owe it to yourself to see this grim, realistic portrayal of a problem that still grips America (and much of the world) nearly 70 years later.