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Film Noir

Blu-ray/DVD: ‘Mildred Pierce’ on Criterion

Is Mildred Pierce (1945) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) film noir or melodrama? I say why choose? Film noir is almost entirely associated with crime stories and life in the shadows and at night in the city and sure enough Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, opens with death and darkness and the twilight of the soul. But there’s a subset of noir rooted in melodrama or the women’s pictures, as they were called in the 1940s and 1950s, films about the lives of women as they reach for their American dream, or at least the one promised them in love, marriage, and family. Mildred Pierce offers both, almost as two separate films that converge in the final act

Criterion

It opens squarely in film noir territory (not that there is anything square and simple in noir), with a point blank murder and grotesque dying convulsions of a man who, even at first glance, convinces us he’s an oily, unclean manipulator who surely earned his terrible death. It’s Zachary Scott in a lounge lizard mustache playing his trademark gigolo with weasely insincerity—almost too perfect for our opening victim. We’ll get back to the corpse but first we leave the beach house scene of the crime for a seedy part of the boardwalk and a woman in fur (Joan Crawford) gripping the rail with every indication of a suicidal plunge into the surf. There’s a gaudily colorful bar with a Polynesian theme owned by Jack Carson, appropriately attired in a white tux that screams new money and no taste especially next to the elegance of Crawford, a nightcap, and what appears to be a neat little frame for murder that sweeps all of our characters into the police station for questioning.

You don’t think of Michael Curtiz, the great house director of Warner Bros. spectacles and prestige pictures, as one of the great noir directors but the opening twenty minutes or so is a master class in film noir directing, in part thanks to stunning nocturnal images by cinematography Ernest Haller (his work earned an Oscar nomination, one of six that the film racked up).

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Review: The Long Goodbye

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabe and Mrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.

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Noir City Seattle 2017 – Film by Film

Noir City 2017 is titled “The Big Knockover” and the theme is heists: big, small, and inevitably doomed. It kicked off Thursday, February 16 with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the godfather of the heist film, and Criss Cross (1949), the darkest, most truly noir-ish heist film ever.

I wrote a preview for The Stranger this week but I and other Parallax View critics have covered a number of these films in past reviews and essays. So here some capsules and notes on the films of this year’s festival, many by me, with links to longer pieces where available.

All screenings at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Thursday, February 16

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – 7:00 PM
“Even as the perfect crime collapses in betrayal and the irrational impulses of human nature, The Asphalt Jungle is a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, a film that both embraces the romance of the criminal code and acknowledges the mercenary impulses of outsiders and upstarts who have no code.” – More from Sean Axmaker for Stream On Demand

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Noir City 2017 Highlights Heists and Favors Risk Over Genre Purity

Throughout the years of Noir City’s Seattle residency, the programming has taken brief detours from the mean streets of hardcore noir to explore side alleys, from early influences on noir to noir influences on other genres. The 2017 festival, which runs February 16-22 and is the biggest to date (20 films in seven days), takes more leeway than usual for “The Big Knockover,” a week of capers, heists, and holdups. A lot of the films don’t qualify as pure noir. The heist genre occupies its own corner of the crime movie universe, sometimes embracing the dark heart of film noir’s world of corruption and desperation and doom, just as often skipping into lighthearted crime comedy or slipping into cool, calculated caper spectacle. You could say that the heist film is the original antihero team endeavor, the supervillain squad combining their unique skills to a common cause—in this case, the impossible robbery. This is one of those times when we root for the bad guys.

Most of the time, anyway.

John Huston essentially launched the heist drama as a genre of its own with The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Constructed around the meticulous planning and execution of a caper, it transformed the crime drama into a mission movie featuring shady soldiers of the urban underworld: mercenaries seeking redemption through one last gamble of action, trust, talent, and sacrifice. It’s a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, with Huston’s wry fatalism providing the noir sensibility.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Blu-ray: John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

The Criterion Collection

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.

Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.

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Blu-ray: Laird Cregar is ‘The Lodger’

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Laird Cregar is The Lodger (1944) (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) in the third screen adaptation of the thriller by Marie Belloc Lowndes (the most famous was the 1926 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock) set in London during the reign of Jack the Ripper.

While the city panics in the wake of another murder of a showgirl by the knife-wielding madman, a man who identifies himself as Mr. Slade (Cregar) takes a room in the middle-class home of an elderly couple with financial difficulties (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood). Also living there is their niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), an attractive, flirtatious entertainer making the leap from music halls to more respectable theaters, and the Bible-quoting Slade can barely hide his fascination behind his admonitions of sin and temptation. George Sanders co-stars as the Scotland Yard investigator who becomes sweet on Kitty and suspicious of Slade. For good reason.

This is film noir by way of gothic thriller, a shadowy suspense thriller in the Victorian era of gaslight and horse drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, and director John Brahm gives the film a lively energy.

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Blu-ray: ‘Sudden Fear’

Cohen Film Collection

Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.

Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.

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#Noirvember Blu-ray: The rural noir of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ and ‘Road House’

ondangerousgroundOn Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray from a script he developed with A.I. Bezzerides and producer John Houseman, opens on the urgent yet fractured dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann, a theme that rushes forward anxiously, pauses with quieter instruments, then jumps again as we watch the nocturnal city streets in the rain through the windshield of a moving car. This is the view of the city as seen by Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), as an obsessive, tightly-wound police detective who works the night shift on the urban streets of an unnamed city filled with grifters, hookers, and petty crooks. He’s as dedicated as they come—he studies mug shots over his meal before the start of shift—but he has no family, no girl, no hobbies, as a quick survey of his Spartan apartment shows, and his single-minded focus on the job has twisted the compassion out of him. When his anger boils over into violence once too often, he’s sent out of town to help with a murder case in the rural countryside.

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#Noirvember Blu-ray: The urban noir of ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ and ‘Cry of the City’

iwakeupscreamI Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.

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#Noirvember Blu-ray: The docu-noir of ‘Boomerang’ and ‘The House on 92nd Street’

house92The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947),  The Naked City (1948), and Hathaway’s own Call Northside 777 (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.

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Blu-ray: ‘Private Property’ rediscovered and restored

privatepropertyPrivate Property (Cinelicious, Blu-ray+DVD) – Put this 1960 film in the “Lost and Found” category. The directorial debut by Leslie Stevens, a playwright and screenwriter and protégé of Orson Welles, it’s a neat little sexually-charged psychological thriller set in the sunny California culture of affluence and trophy wives and drifting hitchhikers crossing the stratified social borders.

Corey Allen and Warren Oates are Duke and Boots, the George and Lenny of angry drifters, and Kate Manx is the beautiful trophy wife that Duke spots on the Pacific Coast Highway in a white Corvette. They coerce a travelling salesman to follow that car and trail her to her Hollywood Hills home, taking up residence in a vacant home next door. They ogle her through the second floor window as Anne sunbathes and skinny dips, and then they insinuate themselves into her home. A student of the Method school, Allen plays Duke as an angry young con man who has perfected the sensitive soul act, while Manx, who was Stevens’ wife at the time, is a limited actress who Stevens directs to an effective performance. Oates is the revelation, walking that tightrope between loyalty and suspicion, slowly figuring out Duke’s games but slow to act until practically pushed into action.

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Blues for Mr. Chandler: ‘The Long Goodbye’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.

Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, The Underground Man, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.

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Seattle Screens: Noir City returns, King Hu at the Uptown, and more Seattle film events

Noir City returns to Seattle, after going on the run in 2015, for a week-long program at The Egyptian titled “Film Noir from A to B.” “The satellite festivals were growing around the country at such a rate that I wanted to take a break from Seattle with the expectation that we would return there bigger and better than ever,” explains Film Noir Foundation founder and Noir City MC Eddie Muller. “My idea for coming back and retooling was to—and this is the first place in the country that I’ve done this—do “Film Noir From A to B” matching an “A” film from a particular year with a “B” film from the same year, to try and recreate a microcosm of film noir in one series. Which I have found is a pretty amusing thing to do.” One exception: Tuesday is “the Edith Head show. The wardrobes for both of those films were designed by Edith Head.” Seattle authors (and film noir obsessives) Vince and Rosemary Keenan will cohost the evening and do a book signing for their debut novel Design for Dying, which features Edith Head as a detective.

The program opens in 1940/1941 with I Wake Up Screaming (seriously one of the greatest titles ever for a film noir) and Stranger on the Third Floor, which has been called the first true film noir by many historians, and it ends with a newly-struck print of Southside 1-1000 (1950), directed by Boris Ingster, who began the fest with Stranger. It presents the Seattle premiere of two Film Noir Foundation restorations—The Guilty (1947) and Woman on the Run (1950)—and six films that are unavailable on home video (disc, streaming, or VOD)—Dr. Broadway (1942), Night Editor (1947), The Guilty, Desert Fury (1947), The Reckless Moment (1949), and Southside 1-1000. All films screened on 35mm. I wrote a preview for The Stranger here.

New restorations of Chinese filmmaker King Hu’s influential Dragon Inn (1967) and sublime A Touch of Zen (1970), considered a masterpiece of Chinese cinema, play for three days only this weekend at SIFF Cinema Uptown.

NWFF and Scarecrow Video present selections from Kino’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a box set of rare preserved and restored films from African-American filmmakers, most of them produced between 1915 and 1946. This is a members-only event for NWFF and Scarecrow $100+ members on Wednesday, July 27 at Northwest Film Forum.

Filmmaker Bob Hannam will be on hand to show his documentary The Colossus of Destiny: A Melvin’s Tale on Saturday and Sunday at Grand Illusion.

“Cinememory: Negotiating the Past Through Film” is a program of local and international experimental films, presented by Emerald Reels at Grand Illusion on Tuesday, July 26.

Legend (1986), Ridley Scott’s fantasy starring Tom Cruise, plays on Saturday, July 23 at NWFF as part of the Puget Soundtrack series. Screened from Blu-ray with a live score by Lazer Kitty.

And on Thursday, July 28, Puget Soundtrack presents Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) with a live score by Fungal Abyss, also at NWFF. Digital presentation.

Fathom Events presents the original Planet of the Apes (1968) on big screen in select theaters across the country for two nights this week: Sunday, July 24 and Wednesday, July 27. You can find participating theaters in your area here.

The animated feature Batman: The Killing Joke, produced for Warner Home Video, plays one night only before its disc and digital release in numerous theaters in and around Seattle on Monday, July 25.

The Seattle Art Museum summer film series Cary Grant for President continues with Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), directed by Frank Capra. It screens on Thursday, July 28 at 7:30pm at Plestcheeff Auditorium and is shown on 35mm. Individual tickets are available on the day of show on a first come, first served basis. Details here.

Openings:

César Augusto Acevedo’s Caméra d’Or winning film Land and Shade plays for a week at Grand Illusion.

The documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You and the Israeli psychological drama Tikkun play for a week at SIFF Film Center.

Visit the film review pages at The Seattle TimesSeattle Weekly, and The Stranger for more releases.

View complete screening schedules through IMDbMSNYahoo, or Fandango, pick the interface of your choice.

Noir City 2016: Existential Dread and Urban Corruption

Victor Mature in ‘I Wake Up Screaming’

After going on the lam for a year, Noir City is back in Seattle, and this time it takes up residency at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (is there a movie house better suited to noir atmosphere?) and expands to 18 films in seven days (July 22–28).

Why does noir hold such a fascination in 2016? There’s the style and energy and Damon-Runyon-gone-to-seed repartee of tough guys and brassy dames, of course. There’s something cathartic about wallowing in the bad decisions and bad behavior of bad guys and bad dames scheming and cheating in the dark corners of the urban jungle, too. But pulp-fiction pleasures aside, the films are dangerous and daring and savvy thanks to a combination of desperation and pessimism, and the implied sex and violence that filmmakers snuck past the censors of the time. Even audiences too jaded for the quaint conventions of old Hollywood movies are captivated by noir portraits of existential dread and urban corruption. These disillusioned portraits of the American dream gone sour are, at their best, too jaded to believe their own studio-mandated happy endings. They may look nostalgic, but they sure feel like a reflection of our own anxious times.

Continue reading at The Stranger