Sunday, November 30, 2014

DER VERLORENE aka THE LOST ONE

Peter Lorre, 1951
Starring: Peter Lorre, Gisela Trowe, Karl John

Dr. Rothe is doing experiments for the Nazis during WWII. In a series of flashbacks, he relates how he discovered that his fiancé was selling government secrets to the Allies. He murders her and his friends help him cover it up so that it looks like suicide by hanging, rather than strangulation. He becomes increasingly paranoid thanks to his work, his depression, and the overbearing attentions of his landlady, who also happens to be his dead fiancé’s mother. He commits a few other murders and eventually goes into hiding under an assumed name after the war — until he runs into a former colleague.

Der Verlorene was Peter Lorre’s sole effort as writer and director, and he also starred in this bleak, melancholic poem about the horrors of Nazism and war. Lorre is one of the key figures of both noir and horror from his career-making performance in Fritz Lang’s M — which makes an excellent companion piece to Der Verlorene — to later efforts like noir-wartime dramas such as Casablanca and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Der Verlorene is one of the few German films that could be considered film noir and it is a uniquely depressing entry with an overwhelming sense of defeat, perhaps more than any other film noir except Detour

Though the film is obsessed with death, wartime destruction, and decay, Lorre doesn’t overtly depict Nazism. There are plenty of veiled references to the war, such as air raid sirens, the refugee camp setting, and bombing late in the film. The evils of Nazi bureaucracy are shown in the scene where Hösch and Winkler — respectively a fellow scientist and a Nazi leader — help Rothe cover up his fiancé’s murder and joke about her alleged suicide. Due to health, romantic, and financial issues, Lorre’s life was bitter and difficult during the making of the film — at the time, Lorre was suffering from a morphine addiction and had spent time in a sanatarium where she received such traumatic treatments as electroshock therapy. He temporarily fled a frustrating career in Hollywood and hoped to help revitalize the German film industry. It had suffered since around 1933 or earlier, when the Nazi censorship yoke came down hard and filmmakers and actors — such as Lorre himself — had fled.

Lorre had worked with some of the world’s greatest directors — Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and more, and that obviously paid off on Der Verlorene. This blend of horror and noir benefits from some German expressionist-influenced cinematography from Vaclav Vich. The city is a skeletal, gray place on the brink of death. Lorre uses a complex and somewhat confusing narrative structure that builds the sense of dread and paranoia with flashbacks and disturbed memories. Is this Rothe’s paranoid fantasy or a violent reality? Either way, Rothe’s plight is symbolic of the psychosis and perversion experienced during Nazi Germany. Like Lang’s M, much of the film’s plot is partially based on a real-life crime. Though it was influenced by Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” it’s also inspired by a news story about a Hamburg doctor who murdered his assistant and committed suicide.

This is one of Lorre’s finest and most personal performances, and certainly one of the most restrained. Disturbingly, Lorre spends much of the film smiling serenely. It’s a sad, empty smile and the character seems constantly on the verge of giving up, admitting defeat, and committing suicide. He speaks of death for much of the film, both his own, Germany’s, and the deaths of the women around him. There are equally solid performances from the five women in the film — Renate Mannhardt (Roberto Rossellini’s Fear) as the fiancée, Johanna Hofer (Possession, Veronika Voss) as her mother, and Lotte Rausch, Eva Ingeborg Scholz, and Gisela Trowe. Karl John (Sorcerer) and Helmuth Rudolph (Teufel in Seide) also have memorable performances as the deplorable Hösch and Winkler.

While Der Verlorene shares thematic content with Lang’s M, it shares a history with Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Both are the one-time directorial efforts of renowned actors, and are powerful films ignored in their time that later rose to classic status. Der Verlorene was hated upon its release in Germany — likely because Germans were desperate to forget about the war and their role in it — but it eventually became popular in Europe. Lorre never released it in the United States and it still mains unavailable there. Kinowelt released a really nice special edition, German-language DVD, and hopefully Criterion will eventually release a quality region 1/A version. The film comes highly recommended and is a must-see, unusual effort from a talented man. Those interested in the film can find it online, though the subtitles are a bit shoddy. Also recommended is the sole English-language biography of Lorre, Stephen D. Youngkin’s extensively researched The Lost One, which borrowed its title from this sadly neglected film.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE SMALL BACK ROOM

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron

A group of British scientist work in a cramped room in London. Sammy Rice, one of the specialists, is bitter because he’s in constant pain from an undisclosed injury that cost him part of his leg, and because he feels the scientific office is being mismanaged. Alcohol is his only balm, though his girlfriend Susan, who works as a secretary in the same office, tolerates his behavior and tries to encourage him to solve the latest problem. Small bombs are being dropped by the Nazis that are disguised as innocent every-day items. Four people, including some children, have been killed. After Susan leaves Sammy and he is at rock bottom, he’s called upon to diffuse one of the bombs, risking his own life in the process.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as the Archers, made 24 films together in the joint roles of director, writer, and producer for a dual career that lasted nearly 30 years. The Small Back Room marks their return to producer Alexander Korda after their previous film, the colorful and tragic The Red Shoes. The Small Back Room is its opposite in nearly every way. Though the former has become one of their most powerful masterpieces, the studio they worked under, the Rank Organisation, was convinced it was a failure. This sense of bitterness was clearly transferred to the tense, nihilistic, black-and-white The Small Back Room, one of their only films that can be considered a psychological drama.

Based on the novel of the same name by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room didn’t perform well at the box office simply because audiences didn’t want another war film when it loomed so large in their memories. However, by making the film after the war ended, Powell and Pressburger were able to make a statement about wartime life without government interference and the pressure to make a propaganda piece. The film brilliantly portrays the frustration — and even evil — of bureaucracy through the character of Waring, most interested in political games and the rise of his own career than he is in the lives of British men and women. Jack Hawkins (Lawrence of Arabia) is solid as the unlikable Waring, a misogynistic, classist, and amoral man, one who could easily stand-in for a studio executive as a military figure.

However, it is Kathleen Byron and David Farrar that make the film as Sammy and Susan. They have excellent chemistry together and a sense of familiarity that does wonders for their characters. Both actors also appeared in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and Byron’s offscreen relationship with Powell was also a contributing factor in her divorce. The camera certainly loves her here. The way Susan’s constant presence in Sammy’s flat is justified is that she lives across the hall, a clever device meant to get around the censors. Susan inexplicably puts up with a lot from Sammy — in many ways, he’s unlikable. He complains without striving for change, is stagnant, bitter, and grumpy. 

Due to his missing leg and constant suffering, there is the sense that he’s a martyr in some way. He perfectly conveys the sense of anxiety and paranoia in the film and there’s a wonderful, hallucinatory scene where Sammy seems to experience delirium tremens, likely influenced by Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend. It is one of the film’s most powerful moments and is a fine example of Christopher Challis’ German expressionist-influenced cinematography. The small spaces that populate the film are made darker and more threatening as Sammy attempts to battle his inner demons, but fails. Later, there is a parallel sequence set up in the anxiety-inducing conclusion. In this dazzling sequence, Sammy has to diffuse one of the bombs on an isolated beach. The camera switches between a desolate, chilling setting and claustrophobic closeups of Sammy’s sweaty face. There is the visual implication that the bomb — and the thrill and the danger it provides — is a stand in or potential replacement for the whiskey bottle. The experience of diffusing it certainly represents a gauntlet that Sammy passes through successfully. After which he is promoted and reunites with Susan.

The Small Back Room may be an understated, quiet gem without the splendor that generally accompanied Powell and Pressburger’s films, but it comes highly recommended. Fortunately available from Criterion, it was released as Hour of Glory in the U.S. Keep your eyes out for some great supporting performances, particularly from Michael Gough (Batman) as Captain Stuart and Cyril Cusack (Harold and Maude) as Corporal Taylor, a man shaking and stuttering with anxiety. An example of one of the film’s moments of pathos and desperation, he passionately loves his wife, though everyone knows she is two-timing him behind his back. Film noir fans will also want to take note that this is a rare British noir effort to feature that staple of late ‘40s and ‘50s noir/crime cinema in the U.S.: the jazz night club sequence.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

THE THIRD MAN

Carol Reed, 1949
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard

Holly Martens, an American writer of pulp novels, travels to post-war Vienna searching for his friend Harry Lime, who has sent him a job offer. It seems that Lime has been killed — hit by a car — and Holly arrives just in time for the funeral. Vienna is occupied by British and Russian forces and he meets two British officers, Sergeant Paine (a fan of Holly’s western books) and Major Calloway. Calloway gently suggests that Lime was a criminal and that Holly should leave town. But he’s determined to find out what happened to Harry and clear his name, especially when he gets some hints that his old friend just might still be alive.

After The Fallen Idol, this was director Carol Reed’s second partnership with writer Graham Greene and remains their most successful work and one of the most enduring triumphs of British cinema. The black-and-white, German expressionist-influenced cinematography from Robert Krasker is incredibly famous, as are Reed’s dizzying Dutch angle shots that pepper the film. The Third Man, despite the fact that it’s a portrait of the decay and corruption in postwar Europe, hasn’t aged a day and remains relevant. Harry Lime is one of cinema’s best villains — or antiheroes, depending on your perspective — and Reed and Greene use him to examine the hazy morality that surrounds any war. Lime’s worst crimes, including stealing medicine reserved for children to sell on the black market, are compared to what presumably good people did during the war — bombing thousands of innocent civilians, all just anonymous dots on Harry’s map.

Moral hypocrisy is at the heart of this bleak film packed with moments of black humor. The Third Man seems to lambast all nationalities — British, German, Russian — though especially Americans through the ridiculous, foolish Holly, ignorant of what life during (and after) wartime is really like. Compared to Lime, Holly and most of the other characters are pale and desperate, living an approximation of life. Lime is simply bursting with life and sensuality. Though other actors were considered to play him, Orson Welles — famous for his love of excess — is perfectly cast. He overwhelms the frame, seeming larger than life, and despite his dubious morality and criminal activities, it’s immediately apparent why both Holly and Anna, Harry’s girlfriend, are drawn to him and why they remain loyal.

Harry Lime was such a compelling figure that Welles went on to take part in a radio drama, The Adventures of Harry Lime (The Lives of Harry Lime in the U.S.), with narration by Welles, who wrote several of the episodes himself. It was also followed by a television spin-off starting in 1959. I haven’t seen the show yet, but the radio show comes highly recommended and is available in its entirety online. Rumors that Welles directed some of the film seem to be false — the most he did was hold up production by arriving late and suggest some excellent, impromptu dialogue, such as the quote about how war and strife have brought out the best in different societies, while all peacetime Switzerland did was invent the cuckoo clock.

Welles is tremendous here, but his regular Mercury Theater collaborator, Joseph Cotten (The Abominable Dr. Phibes), is also excellent as Holly Martins. He’s supported by solid performances from Alida Valli (Eyes Without a Face, Suspiria) as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, British staple Trevor Howard (Green for Danger) as Major Calloway, and many other actors including Bernard Lee, Erich Ponto, and Ernst Deutsch. Vienna is also a character of its own here, with many breathtaking scenes shot on location; this was one of the first British films shot primarily on location and outside of the studio. The scene at the Vienna Ferris Wheel, where Harry and Holly finally meet up, is unforgettable, as is the classic chase scene through the city’s immense network of sewers.

The Third Man comes with the highest possible recommendation. Everything is wonderful, down to the assured directing and cinematography, solid script, and excellent performances. Last but certainly not least is the unforgettable zither score from Viennese composer Anton Karas, which is strange and unsettling, but absolutely perfect. If you can find the out of print Criterion release, that is well worth buying, otherwise you can find it on DVD and Blu-ray.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE FALLEN IDOL

Carol Reed, 1948
Starring: Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Denis O'Dea

Philipe, the young son of a diplomat, is often left alone by his busy father and has developed a close relationship with the butler, Baines. Baines tells him fabricated stories about his dangerous life in Africa and tries to spare the boy from Mrs. Baines, his cruel, jealous wife also employed by the family. Baines tries to leave her — he is having an affair with a younger woman — and she pretends to go out of town to spy on him. She finds him with Julie, his girlfriend, and the quarrel violently. She falls to her death accidentally, which Philipe misinterprets as a murder. In his attempts to help Baines, he further incriminates the man.

Like director Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol has been shunted to the side in favor of The Third Man, which is really a crime in both cases. Shown primarily from the perspective of a child, the film has a haunting quality found in the best films about children on the verge of a developing adult consciousness (Spirit of the Beehive comes to mind in this category), but who fundamentally perceive the world differently. There are plenty of fairy tale like moments — Mrs. Baines is an obvious stand-in for the wicked stepmother — and the palatial house becomes a character all its own. The film was set inside a foreign embassy (most likely French) in London, which would the family to have sufficient wealth to warrant a large house and the employment of a household of servants.

The house is both immense and ominous, as well as a child’s playground. Philipe has the space to play lengthy games of hide-and-seek and to escape from Mrs. Baines. But the mansion is also a place of isolation and foreboding, essentially a prison. Being born into wealth and luxury means a life of loneliness and isolation for the child, as his parents are largely absent. His father appears once at the start of the film and his mother shows up only in the last seconds of the conclusion. Philippe desperately searches for companionship and surrogate parents, which he finds with abundance in Baines. The idea of wanting freedom, of wanting to escape from domestic confines that plague Baines and his young charge, is symbolized by the house, where they are both trapped without love or intimacy.

The Fallen Idol has a deeply noir sense of style with German expressionist-like lighting, Dutch angles, and the unforgettable staircase — that centerpiece of film noir. Georges Périnal’s cinematography and Vincent Korda’s set designs turn the house into a place equally fitting for childhood fantasy, illicit affairs, jealous rages, and violent death. The film was based on a story, “The Basement Room,” written by Graham Greene. This marks the first collaboration between novelist Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. They would go on to adapt Greene’s The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, though this is apparently the work that Greene was the most happy with. There were several changes, mainly that Baines apparently pushed his wife to her death, while in the film she falls and dies accidentally after she continues to try to spy on him.

There are a number of excellent performances, namely Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits, Doctor Zhivago) as Baines. The lovely Michèle Morgan (Port of Shadows) puts in a decent performance as his young girlfriend, Julie, while Sonia Dresdel (The Trials of Oscar Wilde) is memorable as the foul-tempered but not wholly evil Mrs. Baines. Bobby Henrey is transcendent as Philipe, possibly because Green allows him to act like a child. A series of lies, fantasies, and incorrectly witnessed or interpreted events rack his childlike mind and he is desperate to do what’s right, to help exonerate Baines regardless of whether or not the butler really killed his wife. The moment the boy tries to tell the truth — explaining away a piece of evidence that clears Baines of all charges — would have actually damned Baines yet again. But by this time, no one believes him. Philipe soon gives in to the childlike craving for attention and becomes incredibly annoying, which actually serves the story well and ends with him being plunked in a chair, out of the way of adult conversation. 

The Fallen Idol comes recommended and has aged remarkably well. It might sound like a tiresome story about a wealthy brat and an uptight British butler, but it has far more too offer, including a sense of mystery and wonder. Fortunately, Criterion released it and gave it a much-deserved restoration, even throwing in some special features.

ODD MAN OUT

Carol Reed, 1947
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan

Johnny, the leader of a resistance group in Ireland, has escaped from prison and has been hiding out at the home of Kathleen and her grandmother. Kathleen is in love with him and tolerates the group meeting there. They plan a heist on a local mill to raise money for their group, which Johnny reluctantly agrees to take part in. Everything goes wrong and Johnny is shot in the arm and falls out of the getaway car. He is left to hide on his own in the city, while slowly bleeding to death. The police, Johnny’s gang, and Kathleen each begin a desperate for search for him as the night grows colder and it begins to snow.

Based on F.L. Green's novel Odd Man Out (1945), this is one of Carol Reed’s finest films, though it is somewhat underrated because it has been more difficult to see than this famous film, The Third Man. Odd Man Out would actually be a fitting double-feature with The Third Man. Though they are very different films, both are set in war-torn cities where the police search for a criminal who is fleeing because of a single crime gone wrong. Both criminals — Harry Lime of The Third Man and Johnny from Odd Man Out — are immoral. While Harry’s crime is arguably worse, Johnny is a gang leader having doubts after a prison sentence. Both are charismatic anti-heroes, two of Reed’s finest characters.

Odd Man Out was also something of a dry run for the famous, German expressionist-influenced cinematography of The Third Man. Odd Man Out was shot by Robert Krasker and has some truly beautiful scenes of the city at night. Roger Furse and Ralph Binton's production design is excellent and was clearly influenced by French poetic realist films like Pépé le Moko (1937) and Port of Shadows (1938). There is also a sense of Greek tragedy and Catholic martyrdom to Johnny’s character, whose irrevocable doomed is clear from the start of the film. This is just as much film noir as religious tragedy, where Johnny becomes a sort of symbolic sacrifice. He wanders through the city, bleeding out, and has encounters with a variety of strange people — giving the narrative a vignette-like feel — from housewives and artists, to bums and barmen. He eventually moves so close to death that he begins hallucinating and recites parts of Corinthians just before his death: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

James Mason gives an incredible performance, certainly one of his best, but Johnny isn’t actually given the bulk of screen time. The equally sound supporting cast was from Dublin’s well-known Abbey Theatre, including actors like Cyril Cusack (Harold and Maude), Robert Beatty (2001: A Space Odyssey), and Dan O’Herlihy (Halloween III: Season of the Witch). Robert Newton (Oliver Twist) made a memorable cameo as a drunken artist trying to paint death, with the dashing first Doctor Who, William Hartnell, appears as a frustrated bartender not sure whether he should throw Johnny out on the street or give him solace. Kathleen Ryan (Give Us This Day) is here in her first feature film as Johnny’s love. And last, but certainly not least, the Abbey Theatre’s founder, W.G. Fay, appears as the kind Father Tom.

Odd Man Out comes highly recommended and is a noir-crime masterpiece. Reed mostly succeeds in being apolitical and not taking with or being specifically against the IRA, which Johnny’s organization is clearly meant to represent. There are many wonderful surreal moments, which increase as Johnny moves closer to death on his urban, yet mythic journey. The sense of doom and loss is heightened by a wonderful score from William Alwyn, which I would like to own separately. Odd Man Out is currently only available as a region B Blu-ray, though Criterion are allegedly giving it their fantastic treatment sometime in 2015.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

BRIGHTON ROCK (1947)

John Boulting, 1947
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Hermione Baddeley, William Hartnell, Carol Marsh

"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” -Graham Green

At Brighton’s race track, in seaside resort in England, a teenager named Pinkie takes over a small gang after the leader is killed. Partly, this is due to a story written by a local reporter, Fred, so Pinke and some of his men take care of Fred, killing him at the local carnival. He gets one of his men, Spicer, to make sure there is no evidence that the gang was responsible — the police think it was actually a heart attack — but Spicer blunders this and leaves behind a clue that is found by an innocent young waitress, Rose. Pinkie intimidates Rose, but she also falls in love with him. He decides to marry her so that she’ll never be able to testify against him, but he is foiled by Ida, a performer in a touring troupe. Briefly friends with Fred before his death, Ida is determined to get to the bottom of things and follows Pinkie’s trail even though the police ignore her.

With a script by acclaimed British novelist Graham Greene — based on his own novel — and Terence Rattigan (The Prince and the Showgirl, The Browning Version), this is certainly one of the best adaptations of Greene’s works. Adaptations of his novels include such classic thrillers as The Third Man, The Ministry of Fear, The End of the Affair, The Fallen Idol, and more, but Brighton Rock is perhaps the most faithful of all these, changing relatively little of Greene’s plot (except the ending, thanks to studio interference). It’s also one of the finest instances of British film noir, blending elements of the gangster film popularized in the U.S. in the ‘30s with a German expressionist influence and an undeniably British sensibility.

Along with such filmmaking teams as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as the Archers, and Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the Boulting Brothers are a staple of British cinema. Twins John and Roy traded off the roles of director and producer, though John served as director here. His work is understated, but excellent, and it’s a shame they didn’t make any further noir-styled efforts. Thanks to his talents and some wonderful cinematography from the skilled Harry Waxman (The Wicker Man, The Day the Earth Caught Fire), the Brighton location becomes a character of its own. Known as a popular real-life vacation spot, the carnival and resort itself — a seaside paradise — is here depicted as a hell or at best a purgatory for many of its citizens.

Brighton’s depiction of ease and luxury hides a thin veneer of crime, filth, despair, and violence packed into the carnival, race track, cheap boardinghouses, dark alleyways, and bars. Greene’s novel was apparently based on real gangs that plagued the area between the two world wars and there is the same sense of poverty, amorality, and desperation found in Weimar-era narratives. In Brighton Rock, this revolves around Pinkie, one of Britain’s best villains. The late, great Richard Attenborough was fresh off reprising his stage role as Pinkie and is perfectly cast here, a combination of cherubic and diabolic traits. The Catholic Pinkie believes seriously in supernatural forces. He’s anxious and neurotic, a convincing face of evil despite the fact that he’s just a teenager.

The crux of the plot revolves around his neuroses coming down hard on the gang. Though Pinkie is able to kill Fred — a chilling scene set in the carnival fun house — he is gripped by paranoia that someone will discover his crime, even though the police have immediately closed the investigation as death due to a heart attack. It is perhaps a secret, hidden guilt that causes Pinkie to obsessively worry about evidence, which he has his followers track down and stamp out for no logical reason. His marriage to Rose seems to be a way to keep her close without admitting that he has feelings for her — it’s possibly these feelings of love within himself that Pinkie hates, rather than Rose herself. It is also likely that Rose — young and Catholic, like himself — is a living reminder of his guilt, his act of murder. He could easily murder her too, a far simpler task than marrying her to keep her quiet, but he chooses to keep her close.

Aside from Attenborough’s incredible performance, there are some great side roles. Hermione Baddeley is wonderful as the stubborn Ida, a frumpy, somewhat annoying performer who is inexplicably desperate to discover Fred’s murderer. This is presumably because of his one act of kindness towards her — an act fueled sheerly by desperation — which adds to the pathos of her character and the grim tone of the film. Future first Doctor Who William Hartnell is quite dashing as Dallow, while Carol Marsh (Horror of Dracula) is lovely as Rose.

Brighton Rock is available on Blu-ray and comes with the highest recommendation. Though the ending was forced on Boulting by the studio, I think it sums up the overall air of the film — incredibly cynical — and shows that hope is a lie, optimism and faith are always misplaced, and the Catholic way of looking at the world is often strange and cruel.

Monday, November 24, 2014

GREEN FOR DANGER

Sidney Gilliat, 1946
Starring: Alastair Sim, Leo Genn, Sally Gray, Trevor Howard

Citizens in the British countryside are rocked by regular bombings from the Nazi Blitz. Meanwhile, a patient is found dead at a local hospital — he is in surgery after being injured by a bomb, but dies due to improper anesthesia. An investigation is opened, because the anesthesiologist, Dr. Barnes, had a patient die the same way in the past. as Inspector Cockrill heads to the scene, a nurse, Sister Bates, is murdered soon after she announces at a village dance that she knows the death was not an accident, but murder. Several doctors and nurses had motive and opportunity and Cockrill rushes to find the killer as more lives are threatened.

Based on a much-read novel by Christianna Brand, director Sidney Gilliat streamlined the novel’s plot into an elegant work of black comedy, murder most foul, and almost unbearable level of sexual tension. Gilliat made a name with his partner Frank Launder as writers on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, an earlier example of their deft handling of comedy and suspense. They also worked on Night Train to Munich (1940), The Rake’s Progress (1945), The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), and more, often changing up roles as director, writer, and producer. Green for Danger is an example of one of Gilliat’s solo works, without Launder, and possibly as a result it is quite dark in tone.

Though this is often labeled as a film noir or murder mystery, it is really a hybrid of the two, with plenty of elements of horror. Films like this and Dead of Night represent the closest Britain came to cinematic horror during the war years, when the genre was frowned upon if not outright banned The masked and anonymously gowned medical practitioners both serve as a plot function, literally masking the identity of the killer, but they also add to the film’s sense of the weird. There are certainly elements of the Gothic and of German expressionism here, with dark and atmospheric shots of the shadowy hospital at night or the threatening woods, which have a fairy tale-like quality. I can’t help but wonder if this influenced Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960).

As with later giallo films and Eyes Without a Face, there is a sense of anxious, repressed, and almost predatory sexuality at work. Though there are two key male suspects, the women of the film represent both victims and perpetrators and female hysteria runs rampant throughout the film. Women suffer from current and past traumas, which inevitably return to haunt the present. Everything is tenuous and vulnerable due to the war, the bombing and its aftermath, and the constant proximity to death suggested by the hospital. There’s also a somewhat mean-spirited tone, a sense that love and affection is fleeting, temporary, and many of the female characters become near-psychotic in their attempts to grasp it and hold on to it.

The film succeeds thanks to the strong script and a number of excellent performances. While the impressive female cast includes Sally Gray (The Hidden Room), Rosamund John (Spitfire), Judy Campbell (Sredni Vashtar, mother of Jane Birkin), and Meg Jennings (The Innocents), the men are able to hold their own. The stalwart of British cinema from this period, Trevor Howard, is memorable as the icy, possibly neurotic Dr. Barnes, and Ronald Adam (The Haunting), is undeniably disturbing as his foil, the sexually carnivorous Dr White. Alastair Sim, however, steals the film as Inspector Cockrill (Stage Fright) and injects some much needed lightness and humor. Without his humor voice over and absurd bumbling, this would be a very similar film to Henr-Georges Clouzot’s Le corbeau (1943), a black little film about murder and blackmail in a village in wartime France.

Green for Danger comes highly recommended. It’s an assured blend of horror, whodunit, and noir that plays with the conventions of a traditional British mystery and adds bold elements like a wartime background and hospital setting. Thanks to the black humor and German expressionist-like visuals, this puts a toe over the line into horror and is a highly underrated piece of filmmaking. Pick it up through the Criterion Collection.

TOUCH OF EVIL

Orson Welles, 1958
Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia

A car blows up at the U.S.-Mexico border, just as Mexican detective Mike Vargas and his new American wife, Susie, arrive to celebrate their honeymoon. Vargas is reluctantly invited to take part in the investigation, as he is well-known for his work prosecuting a Mexican drug gang, the Grandi family. Vargas has to work with Captain Quinlan, a corpulent detective with an immense reputation and a penchant for playing by his own rules. When Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence, he is determined to uncover the full extent of the conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Grandi gang kidnaps and torments his wife, Susie.

Touch of Evil has the distinction of being Welles’ final American film and is generally regarded as the last official film noir of the classic period (1941 to 1958). This marked Welles’ return to Hollywood after a decade in Europe. He hoped that it would be a successful return, but Hollywood disappointed him yet again. Though he turned in a visionary, experimental work within budget and on schedule, the film was re-cut and re-edited, with a new soundtrack added. Heartbroken, Welles returned to Europe for the rest of his career. Touch of Evil was also dishonored by being released as a B-movie, rather than an A-list film, and it was largely ignored or disliked by American critics and audiences.

However, it was successful in Europe and has fortunately gained a reputation as an influential cult movie and, finally, as a bonafide classic. It’s also been restored several times to approximate the version Welles wanted on screen (thanks to Welles scholars and the notes the director and star left behind before his death). Based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil (from 1956), this study of sex, drugs, bad cops, and racism is another flawed masterpiece from Welles, wrote co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film. As always, he also helped craft the sets, soundscape, and cinematography. His opening sequence, a lengthy long shot through the border town of Los Robles, has become one of the most famous in history.

Welles’ Quinlan is the heart and soul of the film. He’s a flawed, contradictory figure. He isn’t wholly corrupt, but he has a “touch” of evil in his nature and possibly a hint of the supernatural, as his hunches — which he attributes to his injured leg — often seem to be inexplicably correct. He isn’t so much framing innocent victims as guilty suspects, providing evidence for a clean arrest and conviction when there is none. Quinlan is in keeping with many of Welles’ other characters: proud, tragic men whose fatal flaw is their incredible hubris. He’s also a possibly autobiographical examination of the dangers of living a life of excess. He’s huge and bloated, and has exchanged alcohol addiction for the incessant munching of candy bars. But he’s also brilliant and captivating.

Perhaps the film’s weakest element is that the other characters fade and pale in Welles’ shadow, or simply seem cartoonish and ridiculous. For instance, Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career, but it’s also absurd to have Heston playing a Mexican character. It looks like there’s shoe polish on his face instead of tanning lotion and he doesn’t even pretend of have an accent. This could be Welles’ attempts to show little difference between American and Mexican life and people — which is pointed out several times throughout the film — but it’s still difficult to swallow Heston as a Mexican. Janet Leigh puts in a good turn as his lovely blonde wife, but her predicament becomes increasingly ridiculous. The film goes off the rails with its depiction of Susan’s ordeal — she is threatened by the Grandi film and pursued by its gang of leather-wearing, weirdly sexual teenage and twenty-something degenerates. Later, she’s drugged and presumably gang raped, but the whole thing feels cartoonish rather than terrifying. And the worst thing that happens to her is not at the hands of any Mexicans, but is Quinlan’s doing; he frames her for murder.

Both Leigh and Heston are also outdone by the numerous cameos Welles has planted throughout the film. In shades of Psycho (released only two years later), Gunsmoke’s Dennis Weaver appears as a repressed, disturbed hotel manager who leers at Janet Leigh and aids in her kidnapping. Welles’ regular player Joseph Cotten (The Third Man) appears as a detective, while Marlene Dietrich has a great cameo as a gypsy-like brothel owner who tells Quinlan that he has no future, that it’s all used up. Mercedes McCambridge (Johnny Guitar) surprisingly shows up in drag as a Mexican gang member, and Zsa Zsa Gabor has a memorable, if brief scene as the owner of a strip club.

Touch of Evil comes highly recommended. It’s a deeply subversive film that unequivocally roots for its villain and makes the hero look ridiculous. Though earlier Welles works introduced themes of racism, Touch of Evil seems to impart a message stunning for the time that Mexicans are no different than Americans and the carnivalesque border town presents the bleed through of the criminal and immoral from all walks of life. Pick up the DVD or better yet the special edition Blu-ray — this film is a true classic of American cinema from its Gothic-Western undertones to its revolutionary cinematography, and a last American look at one of the country’s greatest auteurs. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI

Orson Welles, 1948
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane

Michael O’Hara, a sailor from Ireland, meets a beautiful blonde woman in Central Park. After he rescues her from potential robbers, she introduces herself as Elsa Bannister and offers to hire him as a sailor on her husband’s yacht when they travel from California to the Panama Canal. Her husband, the disabled Arthur Bannister, is the city’s best defense attorney and is very wealthy. Despite the fact that she’s married and has a colorful, possibly dark past, Michael falls for Elsa and signs on for the trip. During the journey, Bannister’s partner, George Grisby, attempts to hire Michael to help him fake his own death. Michael will appear to murder him, but will be found innocent by default due to the lack of a corpse. Grisby has Michael sign a confession and everything goes wrong from there – Grisby shoots a private detective on Elsa’s trail and, before Michael can put things right, Grisby is found dead along with Michael’s confession…

One of the greatest films noir and one of Orson Welles’ finest efforts, The Lady from Shanghai has a troubled, fascinating history. Welles made the film in exchange for the money to keep a theatrical production of Around the World in 80 Days afloat. Based on a novel by Sherwood King, If I Die Before I Wake, schlock-master William Castle owned the rights to the novel and intended to direct the adaptation himself – though Welles talked him into a role as only associate producer. The studio was troubled by Welles’ use of Brechtian techniques – certainly not geared toward everyday movie-goers – black comedy, unconventional editing, and strange camera-work reliant on long shots, rather than the close ups favored by all Hollywood studios.

Throughout his career, Welles struggled constantly with studio interference. The Lady from Shanghai is yet another example of this. He was devastated by the cuts to his film, particularly the ending, and the addition (in certain scenes) of a musical score. It was allegedly cut by an hour (the missing footage is considered destroyed or permanently lost) and close ups were added of Rita Hayworth. Speaking of Hayworth – Welles’ wife at the time – the studio was scandalized that Welles cut off her trademark long, red hair in exchange for a nearly white, bleached-blonde crop. He also transformed her into the ultimate femme fatale. Michael and Elsa discuss that she was born in the wickedest city in the world and it’s made clear later on that she stays with her husband because he is essentially blackmailing her to keep silent about some crime she has committed.

Elsa is the axis around which the film rotates. Welles and Hayworth were separated during production and were divorced not long after The Lady from Shanghai’s release. It’s easy to see this, in some ways, as a reflection of his feelings toward Hayworth and their marriage. Elsa – like Hayworth herself – is little more than a fantasy creature. She is statue-like, at time even apparitional, with her lovely profile and icy stare, determined inaction, and flat, unemotional register throughout the film. Elsa is presented with a past, but not a future and the exoticism of this past is part of her allure. Her connections with sex, danger, and Shanghai seem frozen in time, like Elsa herself.

Hayworth later said that men didn’t want to marry Rita, they wanted Gilda (her character from the film of the same name) or the fantasy image of her, the sexy pinup and the confident glamor girl. Tragically, she seemed to always marry men who wanted her for her image or, later, her money. Elsa is similar in some ways. Men desire her – and fall hopelessly in love – because of her glamorous image. But unlike the real-life Rita’s insecurities, Elsa is a wanton murderer, ready to seduce and frame Michael so that she can murder her husband and find emotional, physical, and financial freedom.

There are certain parallels with Double Indemnity. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, Elsa is a beautiful woman with questionable morals planning to murder her husband. And Welles’ Michael, like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, is the dope in love with her. Phyllis’ husband spends much of his screen time hobbling on crutches thanks to a broken leg, while Arthur Bannister is permanently disabled. It is likely that Welles was influenced by this highly influential noir, but he takes all of the characters several steps further – they are all more sinister, more depraved, and more surreal.

Aside from his controversial use of Hayworth, Welles cast a number of strong supporting actors from his Mercury Theater group in The Lady from Shanghai, many of whom are conduits for Welles’s sly use of black humor. Sloane (Citizen Kane) co-stars alongside Welles and Hayworth as the pathetic but devious Arthur Bannister, and William Alland (Citizen Kane), Erskine Sanford (Citizen Kane), and noir regular Ted de Corsia (The Big Combo, The Naked City) all have memorable side roles. It’s also worth mentioning that Welles cast a number of non-white actors in a time when Hollywood had some questionable racial politics. Elsa, though apparently Russian by birth, was at least for a time a Chinese citizen and is fluent in the language. When she’s in trouble, she heads to San Francisco’s Chinatown, rather than to white American friends. (There are also black maids and Mexican workers, so don’t think that the racial landscape is progressive, merely less sullied than other films of the era.)

Welles pushed to make The Lady from Shanghai one of the first major Hollywood productions shot mostly on location, including areas of Mexico and San Francisco. The Mexican shoot was apparently dangerous and the cast and crew were beset with interference from various critters, heat stroke, illnesses, and even one cameraman died of a heart attack. Welles, unusual in almost all things, also added two unnerving, dream-like sequences that are considered some of the some exemplary shots in all noir. The first is set in an aquarium, where Michael and Elsa have a love scene and kiss in the presence of school children. The fish behind them were shot to appear larger (and closer) than they really were, giving the scene a shadowy, menacing feel.

The final scene – thrilling, imaginative, and dreamlike – was Welles’ famous carnival set. He pushed the boundaries of how camerawork and editing techniques were typically used, going so far as to put a cameraman down the absurdly long slide. The funhouse was apparently inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – complete with strange angles, moving doors, the giant slide, and a room of mirrors. Welles apparently painted the entire set himself overnight. I wish the missing footage could be restored, but either way, the confrontation between Elsa, her husband, Michael, and a room of mirrors is both chilling and breathtaking.

The Lady from Shanghai remains relevant and exciting, and comes with the highest possible recommendation. It’s available on Blu-ray, though I’m hoping a superior release comes along soon. I haven’t bothered to mention Orson Welles’ performance here – or his role as writer, director, or producer – because it should be assumed that he is fantastic here, as always, and Michael might just be his most heartfelt, emotional role. Considered a failure in its time, The Lady from Shanghai is now considered a masterpiece. This revolutionary gem belongs at the top of any “to watch” list.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

THE STRANGER

Orson Welles, 1946
Starring: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young

Though often neglected alongside his masterpiece Citizen Kane (1942) or beloved film noir, Touch of Evil (1958), Orson Welles’ excellent, if understated thriller, The Stranger (1946), is a gripping look at post-war paranoia in small town America. 

A man from the United Nations War Crimes Commission, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), follows Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a concentration camp commander allowed to leave prison in the hope that he will lead Wilson to Franz Kindler (Orson Welles), a leading member of the Nazi party who has avoided detection and fled to the U.S. Kindler has moved to a small town in Connecticut and changed his name to Charles Rankin. Meinike finds his house, but meets his lovely, young fiancée Mary (Loretta Young) instead. She points him in Rankin’s direction and they meet secretly in the woods. Unfortunately for Meinike, Rankin is more interested in protecting his identity and he kills Meinike and hides his body in the woods. 

Charles and Mary are married, but strange events begin to occur around town, including the poisoning of Mary’s beloved dog and the discovery of Meinike’s body. Wilson figures out that Rankin is Kindler, but has little evidence and needs Mary’s testimony before he can make an arrest. Charles, meanwhile, has convinced Mary that he has to go on the run for a completely different reason and she swears her loyalty. When Wilson and her family show her concentration camp footage, her certainty begins to crack and she is pushed to the edge of hysteria. Will Charles kill her before she faces the truth?

Though Welles considered it one of his worst films, mostly a work for hire piece, The Stranger was a box office success and was nominated for an Academy Award for the script. It also convinced the studio that he could be a team player after his first two sprawling, expensive works, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Despite Hollywood interference in terms of script and editing, Welles’ directing is unmistakable and stylish with interesting framing, long shots, and detailed sets from designer Perry Ferguson. Welles is great at creating atmosphere and suspense, which he successfully maintains throughout the film. 

The script was written by Victor Trivas (Where the Sidewalk Ends) and reworked by Anthony Veiller (The Killers), Welles himself, and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon). There are similarities between The Stranger and other films from the period, including Welles’ interest in small town American in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the clock references, secret identities, and thriller tone of The Third Man (1949), and the evil underbelly of small town American from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Though many other thrillers would go on to address the problem of Nazism, Welles’ Rankin/Kindler is an attractive, charismatic, and intelligent portrait of human evil. This was also the first film released after WWII to show real footage from concentration camps, especially powerful at a time when the world was struggling to believe the camps existed at all. Fascism was a major concern for Welles and was convinced it would find ways to rear its ugly head even after the war was over. 

Welles is excellent as the charismatic Rankin, a character that represents the generalized human evil Hitchcock portrayed in Shadow of a Doubt, but also gives that evil a name: Nazism. His speeches about fascism are truly chilling, but he is compelling enough that we follow him along until the inevitable conclusion. Edward G. Robinson is likable as the investigator in a role similar to the character he played in Double Indemnity, but Welles far overshadows him. It would have been interesting to see Welles’ original choice for the role, Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane). Loretta Young (The Accused) is decent as Rankin’s wife driven to the edge of hysteria and essentially provides the emotional core of the film. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of memorable side characters: Martha Wentworth (Daughter of Dr. Jekyll), Billy House (Bedlam), Konstantin Shayne (Vertigo) , and Richard Long (House on Haunted Hill) as Mary’s earnest brother. 

Though this isn’t technically a noir film, it has been sometimes labelled as such because of its beautiful noir-like visuals from cinematographer Russell Metty (Touch of Evil), which look phenomenal here. The other noir tropes -- a man on the run, secret identities and dark secrets, a detective, a final pursuit -- are shaped by Welles into something totally his own. Of course, Citizen Kane is one of the forerunners of noir style and the major plot point there, the quest to discover a man's true identity, is reshaped here.

In addition to the great transfer, the extras make this release well worth picking up. There is an informative commentary track from film historian, writer, and filmmaker Brett Wood that explores the making of the film and how the end result differed from Welles’ original vision. Also included is Death Mills, a roughly 20 minute short film from Billy Wilder made up of concentration camp footage. A major bonus is that four of Welles’ radio broadcasts were included: “Alameda,” “War Workers,” and “Brazil” from 1942 and “Bikini Atomic Test” from 1946, totaling about 90 minutes. There is also an image gallery and the original trailer for The Stranger

Though many may consider The Stranger to be one of Welles’ more average and accessible works, I have to say that even his most mediocre films that suffer from Hollywood meddling are more interesting than the best works of many other directors from the period. The Stranger is a compelling post-war thriller and comes highly recommended. The Kino Blu-ray is a must-have for Welles fans.

THE KILLING (1956)

Stanley Kubrick, 1956
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr

After he’s released from prison, smalltime criminal Johnny Clay plans to run one final heist before marrying his faithful girlfriend, Fay. His idea is to rob a local racetrack when they’re counting down the sizeable bets they receive during the day. His team includes two insiders, a teller at the racetrack, George, and a bartender, as well as a dirty cop, a sniper to shoot the winning horse and cause a distraction, and a wrestler to start a fight and cause a distraction near the counting room. Unfortunately George blabs a little to his wife, Sherry, who is greedy and hopes to steal the money with the assistance of her boyfriend, Val. Though the plan goes off with nary a hitch, Sherry’s betrayal could cause the ruin of all.

Though he made two features before this, namely noir-melodrama Killer’s Kiss, The Killing can be seen as director Stanley Kubrick’s first serious work. It was something of a breakthrough hit and has gained critical momentum over the years. This was also the beginning of the partnership between Kubrick and producer James Harris, who recognized Kubrick as a brilliant young talent and financed part of The Killing with his own money. They would go on to work together for the following decade and the success of The Killing allowed them to make Paths of Glory together. Based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break, the film was apparently initially intended by Hollywood to be a Frank Sinatra vehicle.

Kubrick and Harris made the brilliant decision to hire noir novelist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me) for the script, which is excellent, particularly the dialogue. Overall, The Killing is a highly imaginative and influential heist film. Though it has much in common with John Huston’s earlier heist-noir, The Asphalt Jungle, including the presence of star Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar). I have to admit that I just don’t get Hayden’s appeal. I think he’s going for the sort of gruff aloofness that John Wayne pulled off so charismatically, but I find him to be flat, unemotional, and utterly boring in every film. He certainly doesn’t do The Killing any favors, though part of its charm is how roughly and coldly it treats the characters.

Like Killer’s Kiss, this shows a distinctly shabby side of life that exists amongst the city’s glitz and glamor. The characters are generally unlikable, although these men want the money not just out of greed, but to improve their lives (and often for the sake of a woman). Some are simply in it out of a sense of loyalty to Johnny Clay, such as my favorite character, wrestler Maurice (played by real-life wrestler Kola Kwariani, apparently a chess buddy of Kubrick’s). Aside from the dull Sterling Hayden, there are some great performances. Noir regulars Ted de Corsia, Timothy Carey, and Marie Windsor all shine. Windsor, as a femme fatale and unfaithful wife, is perhaps the most colorful character and is shown in various stages of dressing and undressing, applying makeup or removing it.

Noir staple Elisha Cook Jr is equally memorable as her runty, rundown husband, always trying to accomplish the Sisyphean task of pleasing a woman obsessed with wealth and glamor. It’s certainly difficult to imagine how they got together in the first place – though there is the suggestion that he promised her a lifestyle he hasn’t yet delivered on – and it is this greed that brings the whole enterprise crashing down around their heads. As with Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick uses noir tropes only where they advance the film, such as with frequent voice-over narration, and a non-linear plot structure (rather than the flashback sequences of Killer’s Kiss). The non-chronological tale often has the same events shown from different characters’ perspectives, resulting in a truly elegant film.

There is a lengthy, though genius heist scene where each character looms large in their individual tasks and everyone from the wrestler to the sharpshooter, as well as Sterling Hayden with his clown mask and shotgun, are unforgettable. Kubrick waits until the last possible moment to realize the explosive, sudden violence at the film’s conclusion, which sharply contrasts earlier scenes of heavy dialogue. The nihilism and hopelessness, such a staple of the noir genre, is contrasted with unexpected moments of black humor. The greedy, nagging wife’s parrot squawks loudly when she dies, and Johnny’s failure at the film’s conclusion is surprisingly (and somewhat uncomfortably) hilarious.

The Killing comes highly recommended. It’s the first Kubrick film where he really comes into his own. Check out the Criterion Blu-ray – certainly the best presentation of the film in the U.S. – which also includes Killer’s Kiss as a supplement. If you enjoy heist films or crime caper movies, this is an absolute must-see.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

KILLER'S KISS

Stanley Kubrick, 1955
Starring: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera

Davey, a washed up boxer, and Gloria, a struggling taxi dancer, are neighbors in an apartment complex. They can see into one another’s rooms across a courtyard and become attracted to one another. The night that Davey loses a fight, Gloria’s boss, Vincent Rapallo, follows her home and attacks her because she continually repels his advances. Davey rushes to save her, causing Rapallo to flee. Davey protectively stays the night and he and Gloria strike up a sudden, intense relationship. They decide to go out of town, but Rapallo is determined to keep her, even if it means murder and kidnapping.

This is director Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film (though he tried to hide and repress his first effort, Fear and Desire), which he also wrote and produced. It’s certainly an early American independent effort; he borrowed money from his uncle to make the film and the budget is noticeably very low. Due to its mainstream subject matter and noir stylings, Kubrick expected it to be mainstream enough to garner him some success. Though it was mostly ignored, he was able to sell the film to United Artists, though they insisted on a happy, romantic ending where Davey and Gloria are reunited at the last possible moment at the train station. Despite this minor setback in his vision, it allowed Kubrick to make a bigger budget follow up – The Killing – which was his first true cinematic success.

I’m not overly fond of Killer’s Kiss – and it has a lot of flaws – but it is a worthwhile look at the developing skills of an auteur director. The grungy, sleazy view of ‘50s New York definitely makes the film worth watching and the shots where Kubrick breaks up the plot to show New Yorkers in action are wonderful (keep an eye out for the people who refuse to ignore the camera). This gives it more than a hint of Cinema verité and a sense of realism found in later independent film. If you like Godard or, more appropriately, Cassavetes, this might be worth checking out for the visual similarities.

Killer’s Kiss isn’t quite film noir, but Kubrick includes plenty of noir tropes that are used well. The main characters are a boxer, a taxi dancer (loosely a sexless, in-club escort, a young woman who is paid per dance by men at a dance hall – an earlier, more wholesome counterpart to the strip club), and a gangster and his thugs. The story is told with flashbacks and voice overs, both Davey and Gloria have had rough lives with little hope for the future. People hang around in alleys and worn out buildings thick with shadows, where they smoke cigarettes and brood. I don’t think this is really a spoof of noir, but Kubrick either cleverly used the tropes to make a dark and violent melodrama, or he just really bumbled his way through this film.

Make no mistake – despite its interesting elements, Killer’s Kiss is deeply flawed. Probably the strongest element is an excellent chase/fight sequence, which takes Davey and Rapallo through the city, into a mannequin factory where they struggle (with an axe) against faceless, life-sized white dolls. Aside from this somewhat brilliant moment, the story is little more than a loosely sketched love triangle where an honorable, though struggling boxer and a successful, though sleazy nightclub owner fight for the ownership of a young dancer. The performances are incredibly basic. Frank Silerva (Viva Zapato) is a dead-ringer for Burt Lancaster, though he can’t quite muster the same brooding charm. Frank Silvera (from Kubrick’s Fear and Desire) often seems like little more than a cartoon villain. The beautiful if blank Chris Chase, billed here as Irene Kane, had a brief acting run (which included a role in All That Jazz), but became known for her career as a writer. She was also the sister of Kubrick’s then-wife, prominent New York ballet dancer Ruth Sobotka. Sobotka appears as the ballerina in Killer’s Kiss, Gloria’s dead sister, dancing in flashback.

I can’t say that the film comes recommended, but Kubrick fans will definitely want to check it out. Killer’s Kiss is available on DVD, but you should really pick up the Criterion release of The Killing – a must see film – which includes Killer’s Kiss as a special feature. Though I didn’t love the film, you certainly wouldn’t be wasting your time with it. It has a fairly short running time, moves at a good pace, and is full of some wonderful New York scenery.

Monday, November 17, 2014

KISS ME DEADLY

Robert Aldrich, 1955
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Maxine Cooper

“Remember me.”

Mike Hammer, a private detective, nearly hits a woman one night while driving on a country road outside of LA. The woman, who eventually gives her name as Christina, is wearing only an overcoat and explains that she has escaped from a mental hospital, where she was held against her will. Hammer agrees to help her get to a bus station, but on the way they’re attacked. Christina is tortured to death and Hammer is nearly killed. He wakes up in a hospital alongside his voluptuous secretary, Velma, and is determined to take Christina’s case. He meets Christina’s roommate, Lily, who is looking for a mystery box. The box, which Velma dubs, the “great whatsit,” moves to the forefront of Hammer’s increasingly dangerous quest.

Director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Dirty Dozen, What’s the Matter with Baby Jane?) helmed this classic and unusual film noir effort. Based on Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly, a Mike Hammer novel, screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Thieves’ Highway) added several changes and twists to Spillane’s beloved novel. For starters, the novel’s original plot focused on drugs and organized crime. Bezzerides brilliantly shifted this to a mystery about nuclear power and the red terror. Hammer, originally a tough detective with a heart of gold who gets roped in by voluptuous dames, is transformed into a sadistic jerk with little to no morals. Though he remains a private detective in both stories, in the novel he takes on various clients, while in the film he specializes in divorce cases. He manipulates the outcome with the assistance of his beautiful secretary, Velma, who he essentially pimps out to seduce husbands.

Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, Paths of Glory) as perfectly cast as Hammer – a solidly built force of nature oozing violent sexuality. This Hammer is a far more cynical and sadistic detective, a postwar model for the beginning of the Cold War. Unlike Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, the detectives of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Hammer is grim and nihilistic, taking a living and indulging in vice, rather than playing by a white-knight code of honor. Because of Hammer and the even worse villains he is up against, Kiss Me Deadly is an extremely subversive film, full of violence, sex, and torture. It’s amazing that several of the scenes made it past the censors, including the central mystery which involves a woman being tortured to death in a machine shop.

The women are a surprisingly large presence in this film, perhaps more so than most noir. First is Velma, played by sexy brunette Maxine Cooper (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) in her first film role. Velma is as immoral as Hammer, willing to entrap men with her sexuality. She also tries to seduce Hammer and, in one surprisingly sexual scene, rubs herself all over him as they almost kiss, but don’t quite. As in the novel, she obviously has feelings for him and is willing to put her life on the line. Another unforgettable woman is Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), also in her first role, as the enigmatic Christina. Her death is not only the central mystery, but she sets the stage for the rest of the film – a woman naked beneath an overcoat, stranded on the highway after an escape from a mental hospital, where she was held against her will. Christina is brave and humorous in the face of death and asserts awareness that the world is treacherous and brutal; despite this, she still wants a chance at life.

Christina and Velma are balanced out by buxom blonde B-movie actress Marian Carr (Indestructible Man) as Friday, all sex appeal and no brains. The film’s villainess, Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers of The Big Break), is a femme fatale in a loose sense of the term. She doesn’t really desire wealth, power, or sex; she has an insatiable curiosity which, in a spin on the Pandora myth, requires her to open the suitcases, even if it means death and disaster.

The “great whatsit,” the glowing suitcase that both Hammer and Lily track through the film, is a symbol of Cold War paranoia and nuclear terror. Somewhat curiously, this takes a backseat to the scenes of sex and violence and, if it wasn’t for the film’s conclusion, it would feel like little more than a MacGuffin. But Kiss Me Deadly has an ending unlike any other — it is absolutely chilling and signals what seems to be the apocalypse. This portrayal of film noir blended with sci-fi and apocalyptic horror is certainly unique for the time period. It’s easy to see the film’s influence on everything from The Night Strangler to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.


Kiss Me Deadly comes with the highest recommendation and should be at the top of your list of film noir to watch immediately. In addition to its grim plot, brutal violence, and unique instances of sci-fi, it’s also a fascinating portrait of ‘50s LA with much of the film shot on location – some of which no longer exist. Check out the
Criterion Blu-ray
to learn more about this masterwork and its history, including the alternate ending — Aldrich’s original conclusion was removed and not restored until several decades later.

Friday, November 14, 2014

THE BIG KNIFE

Robert Aldrich, 1955
Starring: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Shelley Winters

A major Hollywood star, Charlie Castle, wants to retire in order to save his marriage with his wife Marion, but the studio boss, powerful and demanding Stanley Hoff, insists that Charlie renews his contract for another seven years. Though he initially refuses, Charlie soon gives in, much to the disgust of Marion, who can’t decide if she is going to stay or finally seek a divorce. Charlie can’t just walk away because he was involved in a drunk-driving accident where he killed a child. His friend, Buddy Bliss, took the rap and the jail time, but Charlie’s secret is also known by Dixie, a wannabe actress. When she can’t keep her mouth shut, Hoff wants to have her permanently silenced and expects a horrified Charlie to take part.

Director Robert Aldrich essentially made his career just before The Big Knife with a Mickey Spillane noir adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly, after years working with other controversial directors, such as Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Charlie Chaplin, and Abraham Polonsky. The Big Knife is a smaller, less grandiose film than Kiss Me Deadly. Based on a play by Clifford Odets, it primarily takes place on one set, in Charlie’s California home, and is far more dialogue-heavy than hard-hitting, fast-paced Kiss Me Deadly. There is much less sex and no on-screen violence, and yet The Big Knife is a deeply sleazy, filthy film with scene after scene of a crumbling marriage, affairs, seduction-for-hire, sex as manipulation, manslaughter, attempted murder, cruel fate, and more. Like the earlier Sunset Boulevard, it exposes the corruption inherent in the Hollywood system – and in turn, the American dream.

The film actually has much in common with Sunset Boulevard down to the extensive use of melodrama, the theatricality and over- stylization – in The Big Knife, even the character names are a bit silly – and the film centers on a weak protagonist who effectively digs his own grave. Jack Palance, chewing scenery with gusto as Charlie Castle, is the soul of victimization and inaction. He insists that everything happens to him and he is powerless to change events. In a sense, it is easy to be lulled and manipulated by this seeming passivity, but in reality Charlie killed a child while driving drunk and allowed his only real, loyal friend to go to prison on his account. And then, as the ultimate betrayal, he had an affair with his friend’s alcoholic wife.

Though Palance is enjoyable, he – and Charlie – are outshone by the ensemble cast, many of whom are actresses. The great Ida Lupino is underused as an unhappy woman who can’t make up her mind and feels more like a wife caricature than a developed character. Nonetheless, she still gives an excellent performance. Lupino was particularly busy during the period, not only acting (Women’s Prison, Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps), but she got her start directing television at this time. The real star of the film is perhaps Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans, shining yet again as a lonely, desperately sexual woman (similar to her performances in The Night of the Hunter and Lolita). She manages to out-Palance Jack Palance in the key scene where she explains that her position with the film studio is as little more than a glorified prostitute. Also keep an eye out for Jean Hagen (The Asphalt Jungle) as the manipulative seductress who seduces Charlie, and Iika Chase (Now, Voyager) as a gossip columnist with a mean streak.

Wendell Corey (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Rear Window) is great here as the aptly named Smiley Coy, a black-hearted press agent able to change emotions at the drop of a hat. He is far more sinister than either Palance (known later for his villainous roles) or Stanley Hoff. It’s a shame his character wasn’t given more screen time. The scene where he casually discusses Dixie’s murder with Charlie – without directly putting anything into words – is downright creepy.

Finally, Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront) is absolutely wonderful as Stanley Hoff, a histrionic studio executive who also oddly resembles a Bond villain with his white-blonde hair, tan, dark suits and sunglasses, and inexplicable hearing aid. He’s apparently based on several real Hollywood personalities, particularly his need to out-acting and constantly manipulate the actors in his employ. He adds a surreal element to the film and it’s easy to see how maybe this went on to influence David Lynch.

I’m not really sure whether or not to recommend The Big Knife. It’s available on an out of print DVD and will certainly delight some viewers – I enjoyed it very much – but others will find it too talky, staged, and melodramatic. It’s a sleazy, uncomfortable work, like several of Aldrich’s films, but really packs a punch with the surprise ending. SPOILER: Charlie resigns himself to the facts that he will never leave the studio system and his wife will never divorce him but will always remain unhappy. Dixie is going to reveal that Charlie was responsible for the child’s death, just as his friend (the one who assumed guilt) learns that Charlie slept with his wife. In response, he locks himself in the bathroom and slashes his arms open, presumably with the titular “big knife.” Suicide was generally frowned upon by the Production Code, which is undoubtedly why Aldrich felt the need to include it here, as yet another middle finger pointed at a system he loathed and frequently did battle against.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

Charles Laughton, 1955
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

“It’s a hard world for little things.”

Ben Harper accidentally kills two people during a robbery. Before he is arrested, he hides the money inside his young daughter’s doll and swears his two children, John and Pearl, to silence. He is executed in prison, but not before deliriously revealing to his cell mate, Reverend Harry Powell, that the money is hidden somewhere near Ben’s home. Harper, a dangerous serial killer serving jail time for a minor offense, heads to Ben’s home in West Virginia and, convincing her that he is doing the Lord’s work, marries Ben’s widow Willa. Desperate and lonely, Willa falls in love with him, only to be coldly rebuked and then murdered when he realizes she doesn’t know about the hidden cash. Instead, he goes after John and Pearl, who flee in desperation down the river, into the wilderness with Harper hot on their heels.

Based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, The Night of the Hunter is one of the finest American films ever made. This cross between film noir, German expressionism, fantasy-horror, and Southern Gothic is the only film directed by the great actor Charles Laughton (The Private Lives of Henry VIII, This Land is Mine, The Paradine Case, The Big Clock, Witness for the Prosecution, and numerous other films), primarily due to the fact that both audiences and critics disliked the film or outright ignored it upon its release. It wasn’t recognized as a work of greatness until years later.

This nightmarish film, which has some truly frightening scenes and a sense of unbearable suspense that builds throughout, borrows heavily from the literary genre that would come to be known as Southern Gothic. Writers like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor penned novels about rural Southern culture – the heat, poverty, misery, racism, alcoholism, and inherent cruelty in day-to-day life. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, really only Southern Gothic tales explored the poverty and rural values that gripped so much of the country, despite the apparent period of wealth and bounty. Even film noir crossed over into Southern Gothic territory with works like Gun Crazy, Moonrise, They Live By Night, and the greatest in the subgenre, Night of the Hunter.

It combines many of the tropes found in Southern Gothic literature – a family living in poverty and a misguided father, driven to crime and executed for his misdeeds. The Reverend Harry Powell is the face of evil, a false preacher believing he is doing God’s work by murdering his way through the country, with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed across his knuckles. Powell is based on Harry Powers, a real-life serial killer executed by hanging in 1932 for the murders of several people, including a mother and her children. Powell’s journey – a ruthless quest for wealth -- touches upon the rotten core of the American dream. The desire for success at with little work, expansion, and personal freedom regardless of the cost to others inspires Powell to murder a desperate and lonely woman, and to hunt down her two children for a doll packed with stolen money.

Though Powell – as the corrupter and seducer hiding behind a handsome and charming visage -- is one half of this narrative, the other half belongs to the children, Pearl and John. While Night of the Hunter is a story about murder, theft, and terror, it is also a children’s fairytale. Both poetic and fantastical, the children’s flight down the river takes up much of the film. This lengthy sequence is full of fantasy, horror, and imagination. Laughton breaks free somewhat from the film’s narrative structure and instead provides snippets of the children’s terror as they float down the river, desperate to survive.

The children, Peter Graves and Sally Jane Bruce, give solid performances, which is particularly surprising given just how much time they’re on screen. One of the film’s many strengths is its excellent cast, including Robert Mitchum in what may be his best performance. Mitchum, known for his noir, crime, and war film roles as the assured tough guy with a deep, lazy voice and bedroom eyes, was cast against type here. He is truly incredible as Powell and this is certainly one of the most iconic performances in American cinema. Not to be outdone is silent film star Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper. Though I generally find Rachel’s involvement in the film to be overly saccharine, she provides a needed contrast to the Powell and the film’s clueless, self-centered other adults who are far removed from the world of children.

These other adults are best summarized in Shelley Winters’ wonderful performance as the children’s mother. She is so full of loneliness, longing, and a desperate, clinging sexuality that she gives off an innocent, childlike quality, one that prevents her from parenting. Like the town’s other adults, she is obsessed with appearances. She trusts in Powell’s supposed role as Reverend and is determined that he will provide her salvation from isolation, poverty, and despair. Of course, in one of the film’s most shocking and beautiful moments, he murders her and stashes her body at the bottom of the lake, where her hair mingles with the seaweed.

Available from Criterion, Night of the Hunter comes with the highest possible recommendation. Everything about it is perfect. The great writer and film critic James Agee (The African Queen) co-wrote the script with Laughton. Though there has been some debate about who was responsible for what, both men have left their stamp on the film’s complex and tragic story. The film also wouldn’t be the masterpiece it is without the breathtaking, expressionistic cinematography from Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) and the haunting score from Walter Schumann, part classical, choral, and folk. He worked with Robert Mitchum on a rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which will surely send a chill down your spine.