Sunday, January 14, 2018

2017 in the 50s

Anatomy of a Murder - Otto Preminger - Court room drama generally ain't my jam. Luckily this one spends a lot of time outside of official proceedings with the likes of Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara. Unfortunately I am a philistine who doesn't care for jazz soundtracks in general. Final judgement - a sharp looking, nice-looking meh.

Armored Car RobberyRichard Fleischer - You know who would've made a hell of a (Richard Stark's) Parker? William Talman, that's who. Probably Charles McGraw too now that I think of it. Twenty years early, but if you dig that shit, you'll like this one too. Lean, mean and self-describing.
The Big Heat - Fritz Lang - Perfectly hardboiled fare and certainly a must for sons of Lee Marvin whose turn as sadist Vince Stone is probably the standout for the whole picture.

CompulsionRichard Fleischer -Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as Leopold and Loeb (or Steiner and Strauss if you will) deliver engaging performances as the spoiled psychopaths and Orson Welles gets to speechify satisfactorily at the end, but for my money the film could've used a deeper look at the budding killers that climaxed with the crime or the arrest. Stockwell especially is unnerving and I wanted more time with him making my skin creep.

Crime in the Streets - Don Siegel - Biggest smile is "and introducing John Cassavetes" in the opening credits otherwise it feels like a made-for-TV level offering from the usually top-shelf Siegel. Too bad.

Diabolique - Henri-Georges Clouzot - A petty tyrant's murder is plotted and carried out by the women whose lives he makes most miserable, his wife and his mistress, but when his corpse disappears the co-conspirators find their plan shot, their resolve tested and their sanity strained. Adapted by Clouzot (who also adapted Georges Arnaud's book Wages of Fear for the screen) from the novel by Pierre Boileau, it's a classic noir setup and classy atmospheric treat where suspense and spookiness intercept. The film stars Véra Clouzot, wife and frequent collaborator of director Clouzot, and Simone Signoret whose physical resemblance to Sharon Stone I could believe was enough to have been the kick off for the Stone-starring 1996 remake (alongside Isabelle Adjani and Chazz Palminteri) as the femmes fatale and Paul Meurisse as the suitable object of violence.

Dial 1119 - Gerald Mayer - Nice little hostage stand off flick with a particularly strong turn from Marshall Thompson in the lead. His clean-cut, all-American looks hardly ruffle as he murders a man in the opening minutes setting the stage for a showdown we know will take further lives.

Edge of Doom - Mark Robson - Farley Granger is a working-class kid with a big religious chip on his shoulder doing his best to care for his sick mother. Dad was a suicide and denied a Catholic funeral and when mom dies the kid's attempt to get some help or at least acknowledgement is met with general indifference from the clergy and the big, hard city and little more than obtuse posturing from the church. Murder happens.

Fingerprints Don't Lie -Samuel Newfield - What a forensics-based slog. Ugh. Sid Melton's non-sequitur comic sketches fall flat while managing to be the best parts of the film.

House on Telegraph Hill - Robert Wise - Two women in a Nazi concentration camp develop a bond and when one of them dies leaving behind a fortune and a family in America her identity is assumed by the other when the camp is liberated. Her assumed identity helps her escape one set of problems only to set up many more. Romantic suspense is a tough target to bullseye (maybe for me more than you) and this one fell short for me in tone. Wise did terrific hardboiled and mean as shit noir with Born to Kill, delivered suspense in Run Silent, Run Deep and succeeded in romance with West Side Story. The elements don't all gel into a perfect whole and it succeeds and fails on a scene by scene basis.

Illegal - Lewis Allen - Edward G. Robinson is an upright D.A. who sends DeForest Kelley to the electric chair before realizing he was an innocent man. Distraught over his mistake he quits his job and briefly becomes a drunk before realizing his new calling as a defense attorney who employs all manner of trick to get his clients off. The tricks start off amusing, become silly and then loyalties are split between the upright and the leaning. Meh.

Kansas City Confidential - Phil Karlson - When the patsy for an armored car heist gets wise to his predicament he decides to cut himself in on the take tracking down the thieves and posing as one of them. Tough as hell tone and a great cast including Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Neville Brand and John Payne (who went on to star in 99 River Street and Hell's Island for Karlson) make this one an all-timer recommendation.

The Left Handed Gun - Arthur Penn - Based on the Gore Vidal play inspired by the exploits of Billy the Kid, this production, despite its deep bench of talent suffers in comparison to Young Guns for its lack of Kiefer Sutherland.

The Lineup - Don Siegel - Big screen version of the small screen series that was essentially Dragnet in San Francisco. Lucky for us Siegel and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant threw the TV show's formula out the window and gave much more screen time to our trio of heavies Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Richard Jaeckel than an episode ever would have. It's pretty plodding police fare until the focus shifts to the villains who really chew that scenery. Wallach and Keith especially hint at some dark psychic corners and depraved depths that time and the production code would never allow to be fleshed out. That's just as well - hints are often better than explicit explanations. They manage to pull off many a blackly-comic moment including a bath house sequence nearly as memorable as those in T-Men or Eastern Promises. The plot involving the most ridiculous heroin smuggling scheme ever is a one-crazy-day tour of the City by the Bay that leaves about as much blood on the pavement as Siegel's other Frisco film, Dirty Harry.

99 River Street - Phil Karlson - This one's the goods. Everything you want in a noir film - seedy atmosphere, class resentment, sexual distrust, men who only know how to solve their problems with violence and the men and women who manipulate them, moody cinematography. Bonus points for depictions of probably the two most thematically essential film noir occupations: fighter and cab driver. Fuckin-A.

On Dangerous Ground - Nicholas Ray - Robert Ryan turns in an electric performance as a hardboiled, even unhinged, violent cop trying to do a good job outside of his big city beat when he finds himself  demoted to a rural area and investigating a murder in the mountains. Ida Lupino plays a blind woman Ryan becomes involved with and who, as the sister of his suspect, significantly complicates his case. This one bristles with alternate energies generated by the leads and could have something to do with the dual directors as this one includes uncredited direction from Lupino to boot. Whatever the reason it's a top-notch noir.

On the Waterfront - Elia Kazan - One of those beloved pictures that tends to be reduced to a single scene or line of dialogue and you forget how great it actually is till you re-watch it. Plus, Karl Malden is always worth paying attention to on screen - one of those rare character actors you absolutely believe as the salt or scum of the earth depending on what the script suggests. The social conscience of his pictures coupled with his actions during the HUAC hearings make a Kazan an endlessly interesting figure whose personal life, try as I might, I'm not capable of separating from his art.

Orders to Kill - Anthony Asquith - Paul Massie plays an American fighter pilot who speaks french is trained to assassinate a member of the french resistance suspected of being a double agent (Leslie French). The heroic soldier eager to prove himself begins to have doubts about his mission and issues of morality and duty dominate the middle of the picture while the final act is a surprisingly engaging post-action character resolve. Worth noting that Lillian Gish has a small role while Irene Worth's resistance contact is the most compelling character and I found myself wishing for more time spent with her.

The Phenix City Story - Phil Karlson - The interview portions are a clunky device for exposition, but there's no denying the immediacy of the real locale street shots, the seedy brothels and casinos and the violence is potent - especially the murder of a young girl, just damn, you feel it.

The Racket - John Cromwell - Robert Mitchum, the face that gave no fucks, as a crusading policeman? Who smoked up that premise? It probably helps us swallow the conceit that Mitchum never wears a police uniform. Mitchum's cop is squared off against Robert Ryan's gangster in this remake of Lewis Milestone's 1928 adaptation of Bartlett Cormack's play of the same name. The best bits here are the details depicted of the inner-workings of the titular criminal empire so deeply entrenched into the life of the city they're practically legit - the toughest, most crooked racket there is.

Roaring City - William Berke - This one gives cheapies a good name. Lot of fun to watch handsome Hugh Beaumont talk tough and smooth. It's private eye fare that starts with fixed fights and escalates to murder and nobody takes any of it too seriously. The writing is cartoonish and cheesy, but Beaumont chews it well, and every time he sticks a pipe in his mouth it's fun to imagine Ward Cleaver fucked off to the gutter to live by his wits - make for a hell of a beat novel or Men's Adventure series.

Shake Hands With the Devil - Michael Anderson - An a-political American medical student is slowly recruited into the Irish Republican Army after experiencing the brutality of the black and tans, but he eventually comes to cross purposes with their fiery and charismatic leader in 1921.

The Sniper - Edward Dmytryk - A young man so afraid of women that he takes to shooting them for kicks ought to sound a lot more far-fetched than it does. I have no idea how it struck audiences at the time, but holy shit, how depressing is it that this feels so readily believable?

Time Without Pity - Joseph Losey - This race against the clock mystery about a bad father trying to clear his son's name before he's executed is fine, but suffers when compared to some of Losey's better work.

Union StationRudolph Maté - I kinda love movies that take place on trains and I most certainly love William Holden on screen so this cat and mouse kidnapping thriller's a no brainer.

Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock - Somehow I always underestimate how gorgeously produced this deeply fucked up story is. Perhaps more than any other single movie may be most responsible for Brian De Palma's career - everything from the obsession of Jimmy Stewart, and the split identity of the Kim Novak to the technical precision of the staging and editing and the sensual surreality of the lighting. It's just a great flick.

Western Pacific Agent - Sam Newfield - The hunt for a killer riding the rails is intermittently interesting as the action stays with the bindle-stiff killer on the run after robbing a pay load of marked bills, but the investigation-end of things is pretty pat. Note to self: tramps are more interesting protagonists than cops. Sid Melton offers comic relief.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

2017 in the 40s

The Big Sleep - Howard Hawks - Watching this one again in such close proximity to viewings of progeny like The Long Goodbye, Shamus and Inherent Vice it's all the more apparent what a solid template it remains a gold-standard of. The dots don't all connect, but the mood created by the performers, script and camera reward casual and critical revisits alike.

The Big Steal - Don Siegel - Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer are unlikely partners in pursuit of Patric Knowles the man who ripped both of them off. The pan-Mexico adventure is further complicated by William Bendix as the man chasing them. A chase thriller with romantic and comedic elements, it's a solid showing on every front.

The Body Snatcher - Robert Wise - Delightfully ghoulish performance from Boris Karloff as well as a good turn from Bela Lugosi keep this Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation about grave robbing and blackmail from getting too bogged down by its dull leads. Best when it's nasty and it's surprisingly nasty fairly often.

Border Incident - Anthony Mann - A joint Mexican-American undercover operation to stop the flow migratory laborers crossing the border exposes the best and the worst of humanity in this gorgeous noir starring the handsome Ricardo Montalban. This is top-shelf stuff that hasn't lost its edge and may even bite more today.

Born to Kill - Robert Wise - Lawrence Tierney as the epitome of masculine insecurity. He may be a cold, remorseless killer, but he is not without feelings. He'll drop the hammer on anybody any time if he thinks they've slighted him and he's easily manipulated to do so by those with nerve enough to be close to him. Pretty fuckin great.

Brighton RockJohn Boulting - Richard Attenborough is a Brighton gangster whose problems include his own mates, a rival gang and an inconvenient murder witness. For reasons that seem simpler while under the films' sway he becomes romantically involved with the witness and even marries her in an attempt to prevent her being forced to testify against him. His living hell is her whirlwind romance and the audience gets to experience both all the way through the perfection of the picture's final moment full of quintessentially Graham Greene touches.

Brute Force - Jules Dassin - What a script, what performances, what ferocity. Just thrilling from from start to finish.

Cornered - Edward Dmytryk - Dick Powell is on a mission of revenge that leads him around the world. If Nazi revenger escapades are your bag give this one a go.
Dark Alibi - Phil Karlson - The only Charlie Chan movie I've seen and probably the last. I watched it for Karlson who does give some nice visuals, but oof, not for me on a lot of levels.

The Dark Corner - Henry Hathaway - Lucille Ball has top billing, but she's relegated to second banana as secretary and love interest to Clifton Webb's PI, but it's William Bendix who gets the best moment. Helpful hint - never do business in front of an open window.

Dark Passage - Delmer Daves - Pretty bold gamble to cast Bogart and not even show his face for half the movie - choosing instead to shoot first-person from his prison escapee's POV as he hitch-hikes, hijacks and sneaks his way to a plastic surgeon who alters his face to look like Bogey's. Pay-off is we get to focus on Lauren Bacall more and that's never a bad thing. Adapted from the novel by David Goodis.

Desperate - Anthony Mann - A truck driver caught between cops and gangsters goes on the run with his wife. It features one really amazing suspense sequence and between this one and Raw Deal, nobody, but nobody killed off Raymond Burr like Anthony Mann.

Double Indemnity - Billy Wilder - Cain, Chandler, Wilder. Never not surprised by how great it is.

Dressed to Kill - Eugene Ford - Exactly how much of novelist Brett Halliday's DNA wound up in Shane Black? I knew Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a very loose adaptation of Halliday's Bodies Are Where You Find Them, but this adaptation of another of Halliday's Mike Shayne mysteries The Dead Take No Bows by Richard Burke (Halliday was a pen name used chiefly by Michael Shayne creator Davis Dresser, but the Shayne novels were written by several authors) demonstrates so much of the sharp, rhythmic patter and plot beats that Black apes so well you could've convinced me there was a time machine involved. Recommended for the zingers and pratfall charm, but otherwise forgettable pulpy detective schtick.

Drunken Angel - Akira Kurosawa - Takashi Shimura is the titular character, a small town doctor who spends his time trying to save his neighbors from their toxic environment in nuclear-devastated Japan. It's an uphill battle he handles with a hot temper and warm heart, but he meets his match when he encounters Toshirô Mifune's yakuza with an appetite for self-destruction. Filmed and set during the United States' occupation of Japan it's a film disillusioned with tradition and skeptical of the future, but absolutely present in its human pain and determined to find a compass there that may lead somewhere worth being.

Fallen Angel - Otto Preminger - Classic mid-century noir elements here - a drifter/con-man broke and stranded in a small town becomes one point on a lusty triangle with two locals, one a hardbitten sexpot and the other a virgin with a money. He throws in with another local conman and hatches a plan to marry into money and steal the vixen's void where others have a heart. Pure pleasure with high marks for the cast, especially Linda Darnell and John Carradine.

The Fallen Idol - Carol Reed - A young boy inadvertently catches his favorite caretaker cheating on his wife and then her death, but conflicting promises keep him from helping the police set things straight as they go about hanging a murder rap on an innocent party in this classic Long Black Veil style good-intentions, cross-purposes clusterfuck of the classic Graham Greene variety.

He Walked by Night - Alfred Werker, Anthony Mann - Richly atmospheric picture with one hell of a gorgeous climactic sequence. For manhunts in storm tunnels this one gives The Third Man a run for the title.

Highway 13 - William Berke - Someone is sabotaging the trucks doing the titular run and when the undercover cop he thinks is just a trainee is killed Michael Whalen finds himself suspect number one. To prove his innocence and stay out of prison he must find the saboteur. This one has a great setting on the dusty highways and diners among the drivers, mechanics and truck stop workers and at least one surprisingly effective suspense sequence. For driver drama this one's not quite on the level of Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway or Cy Endfield's Hell Drivers, but it's still the pick of the bunch from the Berke films I've been watching lately.

I See a Dark Stranger - Frank Launder - An Irish woman spying for the Nazis who becomes romantically entangled with a British officer against her instincts (it's her hatred for the British after all that led her to volunteer her services to the Germans) sounds like an unlikely protagonist for a light entertainment with the stakes played often for laughs, but damned if it isn't pretty successfully pulled off. Deborah Kerr's fiery performance deserves the recognition.

Mr. District Attorney - William Morgan - Dennis O'Keefe and Florence Rice are a pair of well-meaning, but bumbling investigators (he for the DA's office, she for the newspaper) onto a series of murders revolving around counterfeit currency in this screwball comedy. Thank goodness Peter Lorre shows up a couple times to add a little creepy menace to the super lightweight adaptation of the radio program of the same name.

Naked City - Jules Dassin - Movie version of the TV show making for a fairly average procedural - seemingly well below Dassin's top tier, but for a the finale which features a desperate man hounded by police climbing and then falling from a stairway to heaven elevating our view of the city before crushing him on the streets he knows. It's a terrific sequence.

Raw Deal - Anthony Mann - Raymond Burr's fiery finale is just fucking amazing... rivals the climax of Jules Dassin's Brute Force for the raw power of the images.

Ride the Pink Horse - Robert Montgomery - Another entry in the gringo noir subgenre adapted from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. A revenge tale set in a New Mexican border town, every character may be unreliable and all have mysterious motives. The atmosphere generated by the locale would make it a swell double feature with Touch of Evil, both of which, come to think of it, could have been AC/DC song titles.

Shockproof - Douglas Sirk - Patricia Knight is a paroled killer feinting at toeing the line for her by the book parole officer Cornel Wilde. She sneaks around behind his back with her no-good boyfriend John Baragrey. The Dudley Do-Right PO begins to fall for his trustee's act and eventually she is won over by him, but not before the scheme to undo his career has reached fruition and they go on the run from the law and her dangerous past. Some of the does-she-really-love-him suspense doesn't really work and slows down the proceedings, but by the time they're well into the shit it's an effectively exciting romantic dilemma and fugitive thriller.

Sky Liner - William Berke - A murder occurs aboard a luxury air voyage and Richard Travis's FBI man has the duration of the trip to nail the culprit from the set of travelers with diverse potential motives. This sort of thing is evergreen in suspense entertainments - a ticking clock, a hint of romance and a cannery full of red herring to sort out and while the thriller aspects of Sky Liner suffer some from its age, its biggest entertainment value also lies there (the novelty of luxury air travel especially is amusing to speculate about).

T-Men - Anthony Mann - Top notch hardboiled procedural about Treasury agents infiltrating a counterfeiting ring. The atmosphere is terrific and gorgeously shot by John Alton whose steam-room sequence is a mini-masterpiece of style, the violence is intense and the stakes are well defined. Make for a good double feature with To Live & Die in L.A.

They Live by Night - Nicholas Ray - In this breathless adaptation of Edward Anderson's novel Thieves Like Us (also the inspiration of Robert Altman's film by that name) romance flares between a wounded young bank robber and prison escapee and the daughter of the farmer in whose house he recuperates from his injuries. The pair try to keep their love a secret from her family and his older, more seasoned and ruthless partners while they make plans to run away together. The depression-era we're-all-in-this-together (cut with a healthy strain of every-man/woman-for-themselves) and fuck-the-big-banks-and-double-fuck-the-government setting is wonderful and the rich black and white cinematography is pure pleasure. Gold-standard lovers on the run fare.

Treasure of Monte Cristo - William Berke - A handsome sap in a navy uniform is set up to lose a fortune he doesn't know he has. He takes the whole thing so placidly it's difficult to generate any real suspense, but the adventure story has legs.

21 Days Together - Basil Dean - Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh are strangers who share an instant attraction when they meet in a bar, but when her long-absent husband comes home unexpectedly and finds them together things get violent and Olivier kills him in self-defense. The couple sneak his body out of the house and dump him in an alley where he's discovered the next day. The couple don't really feel guilty about anything and intend to enjoy their romance until an innocent man is arrested for the murder. The couple then decide they have to confess in order to spare the accused, but they put it off - unable to tear away from their newfound happiness - just a day and then a week and then the titular three weeks promising they'll turn themselves in before any lasting consequences fall on the wrong party. The moral dilemmas faced by the lovers and other characters are so essentially Graham Greene like I'm tempted to believe he wrote them into his adaptation of the play by The First and the Last by John Galsworthy that he was adapting for the screen. Having never seen nor read the play I couldn't comment, but damn, it feels like classic Greene territory.