On 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Private 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.
[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.
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.
César Augusto Acevedo’s Caméra d’Or winning film Land and Shade plays for a week at Grand Illusion.
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.
A couple of months back I reviewed two Film Noir Foundation restorations of orphaned films—that is, films that were produced independently, outside of the studio system, by entities that no longer existed. With no one left to protect and preserve them, they fell into the public domain and the original elements were lost or neglected. Here are two more film noir rescues and restorations, these by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation.
Try and Get Me! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released under the title The Sound of Fury, is a 1950 take on the lynch-mob dramas of the thirties dosed with post-war anxiety and sociopathic anger. Frank Lovejoy, one of the everyman actors who took the lead in low-budget crime and action movies of the 1940s and 1950s as the straightforward moral center, stars as Howard Tyler, an out-of-work husband and father in a small California town, desperate to find any job to get his family out of debt (they owe the grocer and the landlord). Killing time over a beer in a bowling alley bar, he meets snazzy-dressing, glib-talking Jerry (Lloyd Bridges), a preening narcissist who flexes his muscles and admires himself in mirrors as he dresses up, slaps on cologne, and parades in front of Lovejoy as if fishing for compliments. He knows a guy, he says, who needs a guy for a job. He’s the guy, it turns out, and the job is wheelman on a gas station robbery. It’s the first step in a lucrative but doomed partnership with a sociopathic peacock who has plans for a big score.
99 River Street (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray), released in 1953, is one of most underappreciated film noirs of the 1950s and arguably the greatest film by Phil Karlson, the toughest film noir director, and certainly his most beautifully brutal, a film driven by the fury of a man who is tired of being life’s punching bag. Karlson developed the film with John Payne, the former star of musicals and light romantic comedies who remade himself as a tough guy star. They had worked together in the lean, mean, twisty cult film noir Kansas City Confidential (1952), a film that inspired Quentin Tarantino, and hatched the story for this follow-up together.
The film opens on a boxing match shot Weegee style: spare, bright, all close-ups and hard light on our boxer hero, Ernie Driscoll (John Payne), getting one of the fiercest beatings I’ve seen in a classic Hollywood film. The kicker to this prologue is too good to spoil, but suffice it to say that it is just one of the inventive storytelling inspirations that both enlivens the film and informs the character. Ernie was once a contender and while he still relives that fight in his head, he’s rolled with the blow and come up with a new plan. Not so his wife (Peggie Castle), who hitched herself to this rising star in anticipation of the high life and ended up in a crummy apartment and a job slinging drinks at a cocktail bar. She’s got plans and it involves a sleazy thief (Brad Dexter, playing it with an arrogant, greedy twinkle) and a fortune in jewels that his own arrogance has made worthless. He needs a patsy and Ernie is his guy.
Film critics Bruce Reid, Richard T. Jameson, Kathleen Murphy, and Robert Horton debate and discuss the recent restorations of film noir orphans Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run, the legacy of Sam Peckinpah, Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise, and (non)critical opinions of Captain America: Civil War in the May 2016 edition of Framing Pictures from Scarecrow Video.
These discussions are held in the screening room of Scarecrow Video on the second Friday of every month and are free to attend. The video appears a few weeks later on the Seattle Channel.
The June edition will take place on Friday, June 10 at 7pm at the Scarecrow Video Screening Room. More information at the Framing Pictures Facebook page.
The Film Noir Foundation, creators of the San Francisco-based Noir City Film Festival and its companion travelling version, expanded its purpose a few years ago to raise money to restore orphaned films, those independent productions made outside the studio system in partnerships formed in some cases to make a single film. Two of their most recent restorations have come to disc in lovely sets: the superb Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Ann Sheridan and the fascinating Too Late for Tears (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) with Lizabeth Scott.
In Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most ruthless heroines in film noir in, a status-conscious middle-class wife who will do anything to keep her hands on a suitcase of cash that lands in her lap by accident. Arthur Kennedy is her husband who wants to take it to the police but is tempted enough to hold onto it for a night or two (just to think over the ramifications, you know) and Dan Duryea is a mercenary crook who comes looking for the cash (payment in a blackmail scheme) and ends up her wary partner. Scott has played her share of heroines and villains both but here she’s pure avarice and cold-blooded greed. She stares at the money piled on the bed with wolfish hunger and childish ecstasy and she’s ready to murder to keep it. The money doesn’t corrupt her, it merely unleashes her suppressed greed. She’s nervous and perhaps even reluctant to carry out the first—fate steps in with a nudge when she hesitates—but she follows through without a regret and doesn’t even flinch the second time. Scott may be a poor man’s Bacall but is no man’s fool. Duryea is in fine form as a weasel of an opportunist, sneering his dialogue in the early scenes and then slipping into disgust and drink as Scott slowly takes control of the partnership. In a genre defined by corrupt, ruthless, and conniving characters, this film features two of the most reprehensible and cold-blooded. Don DeFore is the old “army buddy” who hides his own secrets.
In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it was ostensibly based, beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.
The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.
Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.
Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.
Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).
It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.
Murder My Sweet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is not just the most faithful screen version of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero Philip Marlowe from the classic era of film noir, it’s also one of the best. Dick Powell, the 1930s crooner and boy next door romantic lead of dozens of musical comedies, changed his career trajectory overnight when he took the lead in the Edward Dmytryk-directed adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely” (the title was changed for the movie just to let audiences know that this was a darker side of Powell).
The cynical, smart talking private eye gets hired in short order by, first, a dim ex-con (pug nosed Mike Mazurki) to find his girl Velma, and then by the prissy stooge of a blackmail victim to babysit him during a handoff. The meeting ends with the stooge’s death and Marlowe is immediately engaged by the owner of the jewels, the wily Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor), to recover them. As Marlowe navigates the dark, dangerous world of wartime LA, splitting his search between high society haunts and the cheap smoky bars and flophouses of the inner city, he turns up one too many stones, winds up on the wrong end of a fist, and wakes up to a drug induced nightmare that Dmytryk delivers with a mixture of surreal symbolism and sinister expressionism. Powell delivers screenwriter John Paxton’s snappy lines and droll asides with hard boiled cynicism, like someone not quite as tough as he talks, but it’s Powell’s innate vulnerability that makes this reluctant saint of the city so compelling. Dmytryk’s shadowy style creates a visual equivalent to the web of intrigue Marlowe navigates, an almost perpetual world of night.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Jeff Costello, a professional to his white-gloved fingertips, makes his trenchcoated way through a Parisian nightclub and downstairs to the office of the club’s proprietor, where—fulfilling with his usual cold efficiency the terms of a contract—he shoots the man dead. But just as Costello comes out of the office, another consummate professional, the club’s stylish black pianist Valérie, emerges from another door and sees him. She takes a good, long, quizzical look at his face. Most of the narrative twists that follow in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (seen seven years after release in a Vancouver skid road theater, dubbed and retitled The Godson!), depend upon this short scene and its surprising sequel, when Valérie deliberately fails to identify Costello in a police lineup. Melville makes the puzzle of Valérie’s motivation as teasing to us as it soon becomes to Costello himself. Admirers of this director, however, will not be surprised to learn that the extraordinary impact of the film is minimally dependent upon mere plot.